First Zion Missionary Baptist Church Women’s Ministry Chair Gwendolyn Ferguson and Pastor Bennie L. Jenkins Jr. show off one of two automated external defibrillators (AEDs) installed in the church. COURTESY FIRST ZION MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH

Recent events surrounding the life-saving efforts of the Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin showed the value of using automated external defibrillators and CPR as soon as possible.

While resuscitating a professional athlete might not be in the cards, the 200 members of Bluffton’s First Zion Missionary Baptist Church were on the mind of Gwendolyn Ferguson, chair of the Women’s Ministry.

“I’m a nurse, and I felt that it was important for our church to have something like that, given our community. Black Americans have a higher rate of heart disease,” she said.

First Zion has had the defibrillators since March 2022, when they purchased them through the local nonprofit Arrhythmia Alliance which raises awareness of heart rhythm disorders and sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). 

Ferguson brought the need for the equipment to the church leadership, resulting in a fundraiser to purchase two AEDs. 

According to the Alliance, “every year, approximately 360,000 American citizens die from sudden cardiac arrest. This is more than breast cancer, lung cancer, and AIDS combined.” 

The Defibs Save Lives campaign raises awareness of the importance of knowing the difference between a heart attack and SCA, and the use of an AED. A heart attack is related to the plumbing of the heart whereas a SCA has to do with the electrics – hence the need for an AED to “shock” the heart back into a normal rhythm. Using the AED plus CPR could have prevented 80% of those deaths, states the Alliance in its press releases. 

Ferguson’s goal as the church continues to return to its pre-COVID routines is to carry on with what she began when the equipment first arrived. She maintains a visual check on it to make sure the lights are flashing and it is still operational. 

“With COVID ending, we just began getting back to in-person. When we had our first church meeting – which we hadn’t had in a while – I did a brief introduction to it,” she said. “I told them where the cabinet was, gave them a quick demonstration of it, and how it’s going to tell you what to do, and not be afraid of it.”

Her plans are to repeat the information at church meetings.

“When an emergency happens, you panic, and I just want them to be familiar with them, plus call 911 to get the real people there,” said Ferguson. “But the sooner you get the heartbeat going again, the better it is.”

Helping the church acquire the AEDs is part of the Arrhythmia Alliance “Defibs Saves Lives” campaign. Since 2016, more than 50 AEDs have been placed in Bluffton. There are AEDs in every Bluffton Police Department vehicle, there are AEDs in Oscar Frazier and Dubois Parks, two at First Zion Missionary Baptist Church, and others throughout the community as well as with first responders.

“Science has proven that early defibrillation increases outcomes after a sudden lethal cardiac event. People can be assured that we will do everything we can to be there in their time of need until EMS arrives,” Ferguson said. “Even for our community – if we are out and about on the grounds, and someone goes down, we can go run for it and use it on someone even if they’re not in our church.” 

Arrhythmia Alliance is a coalition of charities, patient groups, patients, caregivers, healthcare professionals, and allied professionals. A-A provides information, support, education, and awareness on all heart rhythm disorders and Sudden Cardiac Arrest.

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Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.