a woman with an external wearable defibrillator vest that goes off accidentally. She is clearly badly surprised.

External Wearable Defibrillators – Safety Device or Torture Device?

After a massive heart attack at 42, my heart was still in recovery, and a low ejection fraction put me at risk for fatal arrhythmias that I would most likely not survive.

External wearable defibrillator

My cardiologist prescribed a wearable external defibrillator, aka the LifeVest®. This device would function to deliver a shock should I go into a fatal arrhythmia. I was relieved, I had a safety back up and wouldn't have to kidnap both the doctor and his crash cart upon my discharge to have a safety net at home. Good thing as I didn't like the doctor.

A woman from the company came in to fit me for it and explain what it did and how it worked.  After a quick measurement, similar to being fit for a bra, she gave me this contraption that reminded me of a bomb vest. The bra-like harness fit ok; it had two sizeable gel-filled defibrillator packs and four silver dollar electrodes around my rib cage. The garment, tethered to a purse-sized controller, weighed about two pounds, mostly due to the rechargeable batteries it housed.

How does it work?

This device would function by measuring my EKG and delivering a shock should I start to go into a sustained arrhythmia. To prevent a misfire, if this device detected an arrhythmia, it would start to alarm, and screech loudly for 45 seconds. If you were in a fatal arrhythmia, you would likely pass out, and in that 45 seconds, if you don't disengage it, it would fire a shock until a normal rhythm is restored.

For months, this device picked up a lot of extra vibrations from the ongoing construction in and around my city apartment and during my daily walks. These additional vibrations were mistaken for arrhythmias, and the device would start the screeching alarm. The first time I cried. "I'm going into cardiac arrest in the middle of Congress St!" I disengaged the device and went home. There is an option to call the device manufacturer's tech team to find out if it was a false alarm. This time, and the hundreds after, were all false alarms.

Fireworks and alarms

I had been invited to the Patriots home opener by a friend working at the event. There would be high security at this game as they would debut the latest Super Bowl trophy, something that was not supposed to happen after deflategate. I had to send in a description of this contraption to get through security. As I mentioned before – the device resembled a bomb vest.

During the trophy presentation, the fireworks went off. My device thought I was having arrhythmias and started the protocol. Luckily, there was a small box in the back that vibration when the defib sequence started, so I was able to disengage. That season the Patriots had a lot of shocking events. I'm glad I didn't add to that list by getting a false shock in their stadium.

What should I consider?

These devices may seem like torture devices, but they are safety devices.  Often, patients will wear them as a bridge to an implantable cardio defibrillator and to see if medication therapy will work.

Things to consider if you get one of these devices or are wearing one now:

    1. It is a safety device designed to shock you out of a bad rhythm. I've heard many stories of these devices saving lives.
    2. Call the manufacture if you have multiple false alarms. They can check the data and suggest ways to reduce these incidences.
    3. Follow the instructions to keep the device clean. Ask for extra vests. They do tend to stretch and need to retain their snugness to get the best readings.
    4. Switch the battery back from side to side. I wore it to one side for the entire seven months, and I ended up with a back problem.
    5. As much as I yelled many profanities at this device, I was very fortunate to have it. While it didn't fire, I was safe, and it made me feel protected.

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