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A matter of life and death at Albuquerque Public Schools

A Larry Barker KRQE News 13 Investigation

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) –The evidence is stashed inside a southeast Albuquerque warehouse: Piles of discarded electronic devices worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even though most have never been used, Albuquerque Public School officials dumped them in salvage bins last year.

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Automated External Defibrillators at the Albuquerque International Sunport. (KRQE)

They’re called defibrillators, or AEDs (Automated External Defibrillators). For anyone experiencing sudden cardiac arrest, an AED is a life-saving device. “Defibrillators hold a unique place in the medical toolbox. They’re the only device that can take somebody whose future is death, certain death, and restore them to life in an instant,” says New Mexico Heart Institute Cardiologist Dr. Sean Mazer. “Prior to the advent of defibrillators, the chances of surviving cardiac arrest was basically zero,” Dr. Mazer said.

In order to provide for the well-being of students and staff APS spent almost $300,000 to place defibrillators in every school building throughout the district. Last year, however, APS changed its mind and tossed them all out. Cheryl Brubaker, APS Director of Nursing Services admits, today, the APS defibrillators removed from the schools have no value to the district.

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Photo of a defibrillator. (KRQE)

To understand why this is important, you have to know something about AEDs. For someone having a cardiac event, a defibrillator automatically monitors a patient’s heartbeat. If it is irregular, the AED will deliver an electrical shock to help restore the heart to a normal rhythm. You find AEDs in most public places, such as airports, theaters, government buildings, and schools.

“The nice thing about AED units is that they are really made for anybody to be able to use them. It gives (audio) directions very loud and clear. It would be really difficult to try to accidentally make a mistake,” says Dr. Denece Kesler, Medical Director for the University of New Mexico’s AED Program. “(UNM has) AEDs because they have been known to save lives. We want to make sure that if somebody has a sudden cardiac arrest that we can help them to come back to life. It might be somebody’s mother. It might be somebody’s child. We just want to make sure that we do what we can to help those people survive,” Dr. Kesler said.

Across town, the Albuquerque Public Schools also recognized the life-saving value of AEDs some years ago. But don’t be deceived by the AED notification signs at the entrance to APS buildings. If a teacher’s heart stops at an APS facility and they need a defibrillator to save their life, all they’ll find will be an empty cabinet.

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AED sign at Desert Ridge Middle School in Albuquerque, N.M. (KRQE)
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Empty defibrillator cabinet at North Star Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M. (KRQE)

“I recommended the removal of old 20-year-old defibrillators that could no longer be repaired, could no longer be maintained, that there were no longer any parts for and the old defibrillators needed to be removed,” APS Nursing Director Cheryl Brubaker says.

“It’s kind of like parts for a lot of things. Eventually, the technology becomes obsolete and you just can’t buy the parts for it. I think what’s happening with the AEDs,” APS Superintendent Scott Elder said.

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One of three bins of defibrillators at Albuquerque Public Schools Maintenance and Operations warehouse. (KRQE)








Last year, Superintendent Elder repealed the district’s long-standing AED policy and directed his staff to gather up all 185 defibrillators and throw them away. APS Nursing Director Cheryl Brubaker says the AEDs were obsolete and non-working. Since last year, they have been stored in large salvage bins inside an APS Maintenance and Operations warehouse.

KRQE News 13’s investigation finds school officials were misinformed about the APS defibrillators. According to the manufacturer (ZOLL) none of the AEDs at APS are obsolete and all of them are serviceable. That was verified by Laurence Saban (AED One Stop Shop) who is a distributor of FDA-approved AEDs including the ZOLL AED Plus.

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Laurence Saban (AED One Stop Shop) who is a distributor of FDA-approved AEDs. (KRQE)

Sabon inspected one of the discarded defibrillators that had been removed from the APS Fleet Management Department. “This particular model was manufactured in 2007 and it is still operational. This is still an item that’s manufactured and sold. … This is not an obsolete model,” Laurence Saban said. “This device needs two things. It’s got expired pads and it’s got batteries that need to be replaced,” Saban says. After new electrode pads and lithium batteries were installed, Saban declared, “This device is ready to save a life.”

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Back of AED with batteries. (KRQE)

Like many electronic devices such as cameras, AEDs are battery-powered. Every few years you have to change batteries to keep a defibrillator up to date.

According to the district’s own (now repealed) AED policy APS was required to check its AEDs monthly to ensure the batteries and pads were current. However, APS could not produce any documentation showing it had routinely maintained or tested its defibrillators as mandated by state law. Among the pile of discarded defibrillators was one that had been at Governor Bent Elementary. It contained a maintenance record showing the device had not been checked or tested in the last 11 years.

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Close-up of a maintenance record. (KRQE)

The Albuquerque Public Schools’ failure to maintain its AEDs came to a head last year after Nursing Director Cheryl Brubaker raised a red flag. In a January 2022 email she wrote, “…the AEDs are all outdated and will need to be removed or replaced.”  She said obsolete defibrillators placed APS at “increased liability” because the district could not be sure its AEDs would function properly. In a March 2022 email, Human Resources Director Todd Torgerson said, “If the AEDs are not maintained per the manufacturer’s specifications … they need to be repaired, replaced, or immediately removed from service.”  In April 2022, APS Risk Management Director Michael Brown wrote, “I agree that the (AEDs) need to be removed as soon as possible.”

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Duracell 123 batteries found on Amazon (KRQE)

In an APS Public Records Request KRQE News 13 asked to see documentation (emails, letters, memos) showing APS defibrillators were obsolete or unserviceable. The district could not provide any evidence its AEDs were out of date or broken. In fact, the APS devices (ZOLL AED Plus) are still manufactured today. Batteries and electrode pads are widely available, even on Amazon.

Ultimately, however, it was not medical professionals who advised APS what to do with its defibrillators. It was the lawyers. APS attorneys said inoperative AEDs could create a liability problem. So, Instead of just putting in new batteries, administrators emptied the schools of all 185 life-saving devices and sent them to salvage. Most had never been used and some were brand new.

“The attorneys felt that there was not a statute that said we had to have them. They felt that having a device that might misfunction or not be used properly opened us to liability,” APS Superintendent Scott Elder said. “(The AEDs) weren’t being used. I just think that’s a big element. … We looked at how many times they’d been utilized in all the years we’d had them and it only had been used once. … Only used one time in 20 years. It just didn’t seem like the best use of the taxpayer’s dollar,” Elder says.

“I go to work in a building that has fire alarms and sprinklers that I hope will never ever be used,” Dr. Sean Mazer said. “I think defibrillators fall into the same kind of public safety realm as those interventions. And I would say probably they will be more likely to be used than the sprinklers and fire alarms in the schools,” Dr. Mazer says.

“Even the use of one defibrillation over the course of many years is worth it because the chance of survival for the person that got that delivered shock is really high,” says UNM Cardiologist and Past President of the American Heart Association, Dr. Abinash Achrekar. “I don’t think I would be comfortable sending my child to a school that didn’t have an AED. We have to remember that there are students in schools, there’s teachers, there’s staff, there’s guests and children do have cardiac arrest. Nine out of ten cardiac arrests that are given a shock by an AED survive,” Dr. Achrekar said.

KRQE News 13 asked APS Nursing Director Cheryl Brubaker, if a teacher at Lew Wallace Elementary has a sudden cardiac event today can they count on an APS defibrillator to save their life? Brubaker’s response, “If we do not have defibrillators, then they need to count on EMS response.”

“If somebody is suffering from sudden cardiac death there is no alternative to a defibrillator. It’s the only way to save somebody’s life who has a sudden cardiac death event,” Cardiologist Dr. Sean Mazer says.

APS has not decided what to do with its discarded defibrillator stockpile.

Meanwhile, following a directive from the New Mexico Activities Association requiring AEDs at all NMAA-sanctioned athletic events, last year, the APS Athletic Department spent $34,000 to install brand-new defibrillators at each of the district’s junior and senior high school athletic departments.

A matter of life and death at Albuquerque Public Schools
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