Real Impact stories spotlight the real difference people, programs and partnerships – across the system – make on the state's economic, social and cultural well-being. For more, explore our new Advanced Placement Summer Institutes.
By Laura Mabry
Cardiac arrest – when the heart’s electrical system stops working – took center stage this winter as the world watched Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s terrifying on-field incident.
Hamlin is alive today because medical professionals responded quickly. Those of us without such training still can provide life-saving care should someone around us experience cardiac arrest at home, at school, anywhere.
“For the best possible outcomes, every link of the chain of survival needs to be strong,” said Courtney Schwerin, executive director of Illinois Heart Rescue. “It’s amazing the difference one person who knows how to do CPR can make.”
Illinois Heart Rescue teaches bystander CPR, automated external defibrillator (AED) use and other emergency essentials in large part because of state funding. Illinois residents and visitors who experience heart-related incidents benefit from the agency’s work with first responders, school professionals and neighborhood organizations so more people can provide critical pre-hospital care.
When the five-year grant that launched Illinois Heart Rescue in 2012 expired, the State of Illinois recognized the results-driven program’s impact and took over funding. This spring, the University of Illinois System again is advocating for the program’s funding as part of its annual state budget request. The system prioritizes its role in advancing healthcare by partnering with healthcare entities and communities to address needs, improve quality of life and save lives.
Dr. Terry Vanden Hoek helped start Illinois Heart Rescue. Part of its mission is collecting, tracking and learning from cardiac arrest data for the State of Illinois.
“We weren’t happy with our numbers related to out-of-hospital cardiac care. We had low survival rates, and we wanted to do better,” said the UI Health physician and emergency medicine chair who is also a University of Illinois Chicago professor.
The program has trained more than 30,000 Chicagoans in CPR since its inception. Vanden Hoek is especially proud of bolstering the rates of bystander CPR in historically marginalized neighborhoods.
“This reflects the widespread commitment to health equity and education,” he said.
Over the past five years, these most improved Chicago neighborhoods experienced significant increases in the percentage of cases where someone did bystander CPR until medical experts took over.
- Clearing – 53%
- McKinley Park – 47%
- Portage Park – 39%
- Gage Park – 35%
- Washington Park – 35%
- North Lawndale – 32%
- Lower West Side – 31%
“Illinois Heart Rescue and our partners at Chicago Fire Department recognize that while some of these areas may be geographically close, they are incredibly culturally diverse from one another,” Schwerin said. “CFD runs thousands of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest calls a year, so these percentage increases really do translate to lives saved.”
Vanden Hoek gives trained dispatchers credit for helping boost these critical rates.
“The improvements seen have been a result of both community engagement and CPR training in combination with increasing telecommunicator CPR where a 911 operator talks a caller through performing CPR until first responders arrive,” he said.
Stats and songs
Illinois Heart Rescue partners with more than 110 hospitals and 50-plus emergency medical services (EMS) entities across Illinois. It provides no-cost quality assurance and quality improvement resources to EMS agencies.
“With so much engagement, survival rates have improved almost five-fold. That’s extraordinary,” Vanden Hoek said. “We’ve saved thousands of lives. More people understand they have the power in their hands to make a difference.”
He means that literally.
Clare Beidelman’s adult students often feel more confident learning and doing hands-only CPR when they understand today’s way to help does not include mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.
“What’s important is to call 911 right way so help will be on the way,” Beidelman said. “Then I tell people to just do chest compressions as best they can.”
As Illinois Heart Rescue community coordinator, Beidelman recruits organizations to take bystander CPR and AED training, often training participants so they pass the knowhow on to others.
She uses the Bee Gees song “Staying Alive” – appropriate on multiple levels – to help people pace themselves for the quick and steady compressions most likely to help cardiac arrest victims. Another song entered her mix not long ago.
“If I’m teaching kids, they all groan when I mention ‘Baby Shark.’ But they know it, and that’s helpful for remembering what they should do in an emergency,” she said.
Beidelman receives regular requests for training from Chicago Public Schools.
“Teachers are often relieved because they’ll know what to do in an emergency,” she said. “Parents do the classes, too. They’re both great champions.”
Beidelman also manages community grants like the one helps Illinois Heart Rescue give away diverse mannequins for training purposes.
Because women and people of color are less likely to receive bystander CPR than white males, Illinois Heart Rescue also uses Black, brown and female mannequins.
“It’s great for people taking our classes in Chicago and around the state to see themselves represented,” Beidelman said.
Beidelman knows she’s making a difference – in more ways than one – when sharing her expertise and passion with people in underserved communities.
“We know certain populations receive less exposure to health and wellness education and receive less medical care,” she said. “For some younger kids, our visit is one of their first exposures. They have questions about being an EMT and working on an ambulance.
“Some end up saying they might want to go into medical careers.”
Another way Illinois Heart Rescue leaves an impact after training is over is through their Community AED Grant. It allows schools and other organizations primarily in central and Southern Illinois to apply for a free AED in exchange for teaching a substantial portion of their community CPR. Since the inception of the program in 2022, Illinois Heart Rescue provided over 50 AEDs to groups that could not purchase the life-saving device.
Take action: To get involved in healthcare and other advocacy opportunities, join Illinois Connection, a legislative network that promotes the U of I System’s positive impact on the state, nation and world to secure necessary resources and help ensure the system’s legacy and longevity
The University of Illinois System’s impact through advancing healthcare access and innovation is just part of what makes us Altogether Extraordinary. To share a story idea, please message email@example.com.