How a Toilet Plunger Improved CPR

In 1988, a 65-year-old man’s heart stopped at home. His wife and son didn’t know CPR, so in desperation they grabbed a toilet plunger to get his heart going until an ambulance showed up.

Later, after the man recovered at San Francisco General Hospital, his son gave the doctors there some advice: Put toilet plungers next to all of the beds in the coronary unit.

The hospital didn’t do that, but the idea got the doctors thinking about better ways to do CPR, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the conventional method for chest compressions after cardiac arrest. More than three decades later, at a meeting of emergency medical services directors this week in Hollywood, Fla., researchers presented data showing that using a plunger-like setup leads to remarkably better outcomes for reviving patients.

Traditional CPR doesn’t have a great track record: On average, just 7 percent of people who receive it before getting to the hospital are ultimately discharged with full brain function, according to a national registry of cardiac arrests treated by emergency medical workers in communities across the country.

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