Until Wednesday, at least 19 Southern Arizona high schools lacked defibrillators, which can prevent deaths from sudden cardiac arrest.

A local family changed that this week, donating the devices using money it raised in the wake of a tragedy.

After learning about a lack of defibrillators in many schools, the local Steven M. Gootter Foundation earlier this year offered to donate automated external defibrillators, known as AEDs, to any Southern Arizona public or private high schools that lack the lifesaving devices.

Even though AEDs are becoming increasingly accessible in public places such as airports, convention centers and shopping malls, schools often lack the funding to acquire a defibrillator or the resources necessary for training and overseeing their use and maintenance.

"It's a way to channel our grief from a horrific loss," said Claudine Messing, whose brother, Steven M. Gootter, died of sudden cardiac arrest four years ago when he was 42.

"We wish one would have been present when my brother collapsed."

The AED is a simpler, portable, pillow-sized version of the defibrillator cart found in a hospital setting. Its purpose is to shock the heart into a normal rhythm after cardiac arrest.

Nineteen high schools in Southern Arizona, including Bisbee, Willcox and Sells, took the foundation up on its offer.

Arizona does not mandate that schools have the devices on-site. One AED costs $1,000 to $3,000.

The nonprofit Gootter Foundation also donated AEDs to six Tucson Boys and Girls Clubs and to the Jim Reffkin Tennis Center, formerly the Randolph Tennis Center.

Medical personnel from the University of Arizona's Sarver Heart Center began training school officials on how to use the devices at University Medical Center on Wednesday afternoon. Sessions will continue through the rest of the week.

School officials said they were relieved to have an extra layer of safety.

"We have 2,000 students and 200 staff, and at football games we have about 3,000 people on our campus, so this is really wonderful for the school," Desert View High School nurse Margaret Eller said.

Four other Desert View staffers were at the training. Eller said the school will keep the device in its nurse's station. Ideally, it will eventually acquire more of them, she said.

According to the American Heart Association, fewer than 8 percent of the nearly 300,000 people each year who experience sudden cardiac arrest outside of a hospital survive.

"Every three days, as many people die of sudden cardiac arrest as died in the Sept. 11 attacks," said Dr. Gordon A. Ewy, director of the Sarver Heart Center.

Ewy said an AED plus chest-compression cardiopulmonary resuscitation will improve the odds of survival in someone who has suffered cardiac arrest.

Lani L. Clark, who works at the Sarver Heart Center and oversees a statewide AED program, said there are three things to remember when someone suffers sudden cardiac arrest — call 911, turn on the AED and do chest-compression CPR.

She demonstrated the use of the AED, which tells the user how to use it, including how to apply electrodes and whether to press the button to administer a shock.

"Begin by removing all clothing from the patient's chest. Cut clothing if needed," the AED speaks in a male voice after it is turned on. It then continues to walk the user through each step.

"It's very likely lives will be saved as a result of this generous gift," Clark said.

The impetus for the AED donations came from an incident earlier this year, when Emilio Martinez, 17, collapsed after a weight-training class at Cienega High School in Vail and went into cardiac arrest.

Quick-thinking staff members at Martinez's far-east-side school used an AED until rescuers arrived to fly the teen to University Medical Center.

Doctors have told Martinez that without the actions of those staffers, he likely wouldn't have survived.

Tests later determined Martinez suffers from ventricular fibrillation — a condition in which the electrical activity in the heart becomes disordered, leaving its lower chambers to flutter instead of beat. He now has an implant that shocks the heart to regulate its beats if the electrical signals get mixed up.

Martinez wasn't able to make it to Wednesday's press briefing and defibrillator-training session — he was playing in a football scrimmage.

Did you know?

The Steven M. Gootter Foundation is named for the Tucson entrepreneur who died at 42 of sudden cardiac arrest in 2005 while he was out for a jog with the family dog. His friends and family set up the foundation in an effort to defeat sudden cardiac death. Since Gootter's death, the foundation has raised more than $1 million to fund research projects and to create the Steven M. Gootter Endowed Chair for the Prevention and Treatment of Sudden Cardiac Death at the University of Arizona's Sarver Heart Center.

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or sinnes@azstarnet.com. Follow Stephanie Innes on Twitter at twitter.com/stephanieinnes