Bryan is a computer neophyte (he needs help turning his computer on), but he has a basketball story. His team was playing in a crucial basketball playoff game at the club. They were down by two late in the game and he just couldn’t get one of his players to play defense. This player was a great shooter and that is about it — burying a three that put the team up for the first time. After sinking it he just stood there admiring his masterpiece while Bryan screamed at him to get back on defense (he rarely played D and he didn’t that game either). Instead, he flat lined and went down on his face– heart attack!
Of course that player was me and that was an awful day. But I’m still around to tell the story… as a hardware designer years before I didn’t know that I’d bet everything on one particular project.
My name is Chris. In the seventies, I got a degree in EE from MSU (the good Michigan University!). I also took some bioengineering and computer programming classes. In the back of my mind, I thought I could cure my diabetes with some kind of technology. I could type punch cards with the best of them. I am pretty sure that the beer I consumed was recommended medicine for using the CDC 6500 (well, except when the cards fell on the floor before I could give them to the operators. I chose to blame them).
When I graduated, I went to work for a large airplane company. One of the jobs was as an automated test engineer. I created circuit boards and software to test all of the electronics on a plane before it could fly. The (mighty) HP1000/RTE, programming with Fortan77, Macro/1000, SymbolicDebug/1000, and machine languages to talk to the chips. My beer drinking friends would always get nervous when I would tell them that the plane wouldn’t go until my tests gave it the OK.
I soon abandoned the big company bureaucracy. I went to work at a local hospital. Working on an ECG (Electrocardiography) analysis computer. The system used artificial intelligence and pattern recognition software and knowledge bases to automatically carry out the interpretation, test reporting, and computer-aided diagnosis of ECG tracings obtained from a patient. I used the (mighty) HP1000/RTE again, with 4 platter removable disk drives that could hold about 300MB of data and tape backups.
The cardiologist I worked for invested in a small startup that was going to make semi-automatic defibrillators that could be taken out into the field by first responders (police and fire). With heart attacks, the quicker you get the heart back, the better chances for survival. At the time, only EMTs and trained specialists could bring out the trusty paddles and administer a shock. But that might take precious time to get them to the scene.
To develop their defibrillator algorithms the company, First Medic, wanted to use the years of ECG data my system had gathered. I was their first consultant. It was fun and exciting (plus, they had also hired a friend of mine who worked at the plane company), so I only charged them a case of Sam Adam’s beer for my work (hey, it was good beer!).
I went to work for the company a short time later. The defibrillator had to be small and portable, pack a punch (up to 360J of energy per shock), have rechargeable batteries (which was hard back then), not fry the chips with the high energy shocks, talk to the operator to tell them what to do next, read the patient’s ECG and decide when to shock. Then, after the incident, the system had to communicate results with hospitals, and have a data management system. We built small cartridges to plug into the machines. I built a device that would read that data and transmit to a computer via a serial port or over a modem. I did the data management system and all of the communications software. Had to do it all on DOS machines with 640K max, as fire and police had limited budgets for another computer system that only ran this system. I created printer drivers for dot matrix printers and later laser jet printers. I had to create graphics to view the ECG on the computer … and graphics were a bitch on DOS machines! I used C, Assembly and various machine languages to program.
Our first product was the First Medic 510 AED (Automated External Defibrillator). Our first customers were the fire departments from NYC, San Diego County, Alameda County, and Vancouver BC. I went to a gathering near Oakland where we paid for 9 of the people who were saved by the fire department (in the first year they had our AEDs) to meet the fire folks who saved their lives (usually the patient is dropped off at the hospital after the incident and never sees the people who first treated them again). It was pretty emotional and a pretty good feeling to know I had a part in all of that.
Like many startups, we invented new technology, the work was interesting/challenging/fun, and we ‘changed the world’. However, we ran into regulations, as we had to go from state to state to get them to change the laws to allow non-doctor first responders to deliver shocks. You may be surprised to hear that it probably took more time and resources than actually building the product. To make matters worse, we had foreign investors who bailed. We ran out of money and got purchased by another company (for pennies on the dollar) before finally releasing the initial product. How often does the first one out of the box not make the big payday? We would ask for pay and get more stock options. I wish I had kept them, as I need the wallpaper.
Back to the hoop story
Two teenagers sprinted out onto the court and gave me CPR. But, more important, grabbed the easy-to-use AED (which the club had just bought and trained its employees to use) and re-started my heart. Two weeks later, I was released from the hospital. Two intrepid teenagers and a brand new AED had saved my life.
Bryan is glad I was saved so that I can go over to his house to turn his computer on!
About the Author
Chris, more than eight years after his death defying act, is working at the University of Washington. He is building out data systems for multi-center biomedical research studies in an effort to improve people’s health and lives.