Cynthia Zardus was in the kitchen of her Gloucester County home Oct. 12 when her heart stopped.
It started again, thanks in part to an automated external defibrillator Harrison Township police officers used to save her life.
“To say the least, I think it was a miracle," said Zardus, 67, a wife and mother who worked as a school bus driver for nearly two decades.
A few months earlier, Zardus would have had to hope one of the police cars that arrived before emergency medical personnel carried the police department’s sole AED. But thanks to an online fund-raiser started by a township resident who also is a doctor, the department now has eight defibrillators. That means each of the cars that patrol the township’s roughly 20 square miles has one, as well as police headquarters.
"I think a lot of people were surprised police didn’t have it available,” said the doctor behind the fund-raiser, Rick Pescatore, medical director of emergency medical services and director of clinical research for Crozer-Keystone Health System. "People think when you call 911, you get the cavalry. And while that’s true, you don’t get everyone at the same time.”
Often, police officers are first on the scene. And when someone’s heart stops, minutes matter.
Harrison’s funding challenge might not be unusual, said Christopher Wagner, director of public affairs for the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. Wagner said he wasn’t aware of federal or state money readily available to help police departments buy AEDs, which can cost more than $1,000 each.
“That’s a lot of money for a small town to pony up at once,” Wagner said. "That means something else is probably not going to be purchased that year.”
State and federal grants are available for other equipment, such as body cameras. No state or federal funding funneled through the state Office of the Attorney General or the state Department of Health is allocated for medical equipment such as AEDs, spokespeople said.
It’s not uncommon for residents to donate equipment or raise money for their local police department, Wagner said. Communities raise funds for patrol rifles, traffic safety signs, K-9 units, and body armor for officers, just as they used to raise funds for dash cameras for patrol cars. When AEDs became more widely used in police departments about 15 years ago, community organizations tended to donate those, he said.
"They’ve really been transformational in the business of performing successful CPR,” Wagner said. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of people we can save.”
Pescatore studied the prevalence of AEDs among New Jersey police departments as a medical student. In a paper published in 2015, he and fellow researchers found that nearly all of the 120 municipal police agencies surveyed placed AEDs in at least some of their vehicles.
Since starting the campaign, Pescatore has raised more than $5,000 from residents and physicians near and far, bought seven AEDs and accessories at a discount on eBay, and donated them to the Harrison Township police.
The department planned to make do with the one defibrillator it had until space opened up in the budget, “but there was no timetable for that,” said Lt. Ronald Cundey, the department’s public information officer. The agency has had AEDs off and on during Cundey’s more than two decades in the department.
Luckily for Zardus, Pescatore saw an officer’s tweet about the department’s sole device and stepped in to help.
“It worked out great and thankfully we were able to save this lady’s life," Cundey said. “It’s a good feeling not just for the department, but for the officers involved.”
Pescatore said he’s happy to see people recognizing the importance of the devices and donating on his GoFundMe page. About half of the 50 people who have donated are township residents, he said.
“One of the coolest aspects here — and it’s such a trope — but the power of social media. It really is pretty incredible,” he said. “We’re lucky we live in giving communities.”
This story has been updated to correct the name of the police department’s public information officer.