Health and Education Editor Barry Nelson talks to father-of-three Eric Atkinson about a routine trip to the gym which nearly ended in tragedy

ERIC ATKINSON always enjoyed his regular sessions at his local gym. Advised by his doctor to take more exercise, the 70- year-old went twice a week to the gym at Billingham Forum.

His preferred piece of equipment was the treadmill and that was where he suffered a cardiac arrest.

“It was about lunchtime. I just collapsed and hit my head as I went down,” recalls Mr Atkinson, who has three grown-up children and four grandchildren.

“I couldn’t tell you a lot because I was more or less unconscious as I hit the floor. I couldn’t remember anything until I woke up in hospital.”

He learned afterwards that quick-acting gym staff rushed to his aid.

One gave him mouth-tomouth resuscitation, another pummelled his chest to keep his heart going, while another broke out the gym’s own defibrillator, which was used on several occasions as staff battled to keep him alive until paramedics arrived.

Anne Restall, 47, one of the three Billingham Forum staff who went to Mr Atkinson’s aid, told The Northern Echo: “It was a big team effort. I used the defibrillator on him several times.”

She explained that while she applied the defibrillator – which only delivers an electric charge if it detect rhythmic abnormalities – her colleague Graham Haswell, 48, gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and another colleague, Paul Hewitson, 44, did chest compressions, known as CPR.

“It seemed like a lifetime but it was just minutes before the paramedics arrived,” Ms Restall recalled.

The three staff were given a certificate of commendation by the Royal Life Saving Society earlier this year.

Ms Restall has no doubt that every gym should have its own defibrillator, which is used to shock the heart back into a more normal rhythm.

“From the experience we had, I think it is an invaluable piece of equipment.”

She personally believes it should be illegal to run a gym without one.

Mr Atkinson also believes it makes a lot of sense for all gyms to have heart-start machines.

“When you think how much all the gym equipment costs, the cost of a defibrillator (£1,000) is peanuts,” he added.

Mr Atkinson, who will have been married to his wife, Olive, 50 years next April, is full of praise for the Billingham Forum staff. “I don’t think I would be sitting here now if it hadn’t happened in the gym. I was in the right place at the right time.”

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham’s call for more defibrillators was made at a Heart Safety Summit he convened in Westminster yesterday.

It chimed perfectly with The Northern Echo’s campaign launch.

First-hand testimony was heard from parents who had lost children to cardiac arrest and expert cardiologists.

Public awareness increased significantly with the collapse of Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba earlier this year.

Campaigners believe more lives could be saved if England was to follow the example of places such as Seattle, in the US, and Italy in developing a more co-ordinated approach to community response.

This would include putting more defibrillators in public places such as sports clubs and gyms.