Scientists Improvise Heart Device at Sea
The New York Times
Saturday, July 7, 1973

By Walter Sullivan
Special to The New York Times

[New York Times - 'Scientists Improvise Heart Device at Sea']

ABOARD THE CANBERRA, at Sea, July 6 — Scientists and students aboard this ship, returning from a rendezvous with the solar eclipse last Saturday, combined their skills today and improvised a defibrillator for emergency treatment of a stricken seaman removed from an American cargo vessel in the mid-Atlantic.

The instrument is designed to administer an electric shock restoring a rhythmic pulse when a failing heart fibrillates, or flutters, instead of beating normally.

By this afternoon it had not yet been necessary to use the makeshift instrument, but it was being kept on stand-by. The Canberra is due in New York Sunday morning.

Emergency Call Heard

In improvising the defibrillator, the passenger experts, working in cooperation with the ship's staff, used capacitors from the ship's antenna system, plates from a television camera tripod, screwdrivers with insulated handles, diodes from the kit of a Florida skywatcher and power determinations from the pocket calculator of a Canadian electronics expert.

They also used an oscilliscope from testing equipment brought by scientists from the State University of New York at Albany to provide the ship's surgeon with a continuous display of the patient's heart function.

The drama began last evening when this ship's radio officer intercepted a call on the emergency frequency of 500 khz from the freighter Overseas Progress operated by Overseas Oil Carriers, Inc., of New York,

The freighter explained that a crewman had suffered a series of heart attacks. The Canberra's surgeon, Dr. Anthony Kneath, recommended to the captain, Eric Snowden, that the man be brought aboard and cared for in the medical facility.

"You may have noticed that we have changed course," the captain told the 1,800 passengers, half of them at dinner, over the public address system as the two ships headed for a rendezvous. He then explained the rescue plan. Shortly after 2 A.M. today, the patient was brought aboard.

Condition Critical

The stricken sailor, William Turpin, 63 years old, a fireman-plumber, had apparently suffered heart damage from congested blod supply —a so-called myocardial infarction. He was in pain and his condition was assessed as critical.

Meanwhile, the passengers had been at work. At dinner Geoffrey Bloch, a student with a group organized by the Natural Sciences Institute at the Albany campus, learned from one of the ship's surgeons that there was on board a device for printing out heart performance on paper — an electrocardiograph. But this was not suited to prolonged monitoring.

Mr. Bloch pointed out that the Albany group had an oscilloscope that could be rigged for that purpose. It was connected to the electrocardiograph, tested on a student, and then put to work when the patient came aboard.

But what to do if his heart began to flutter, as often happens in such cases? This called for a defibrillator, and Mark Urbaetis of the Dudley Observatory in Albany suggested that it might be possible to make one. A pickup team of students, astronomers, physicians and electronics specialists from among the eclipse-watchers went to work with Alfred Halstrunk of the Albany group as liaison with the ship's medical department.

Antenna Capacitors Used

Capacitors were needed to build up enough power for a suitable electric shock.

It was learned that the ship had two antenna systems with such capacitors, and since communications could be maintained with one, the devices were taken from the other.

Plates needed as electrodes to be applied to the chest and back of the patient and disks three inches in diameter that served as tightening bolts on a tripod used in the eclipse observations were obtained.

Screwdrivers with nonconducting plastic grips were attached to them as handles. A knife switch was yanked from one of the scientific exhibits, for use in controlling the device.

Meanwhile, as the ship neared her rendezvous the improvisers were seeking out additional electronic components from television sets, a guitar amplifier and other sources. Since the electrical characteristics of such equipment were a matter of life or death for the patient, precise computation was required, and this was where the pocket calculator came in.

Diodes of a certain type were needed and it was known that one of the astronomical groups from Clearwater, Fla., had some spares.

Go to Canberra's Voyage to Darkness — African Eclipse Cruise

Ted Pedas Links

E-mail:   Ted Pedas —