As a police officer in Sturgis, South Dakota, Walter Panzirer performed CPR many times, yet was unable to successfully save anyone. Meanwhile, while a police officer across the state in Mitchell, South Dakota, Panzirer and the other officers were equipped with automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, which are life-saving heart health resources. 

Now, as a Trustee at The Helmsley Charitable Trust, Panzirer is leading an effort across the Midwest that is saving lives and transforming the rural healthcare landscape. Panzirer and the Trust are equipping first responders with AEDs in communities across rural states in the Midwest and West. 

The Helmsley Trust is a global philanthropic organization working across six program areas, with rural healthcare being one of them.

The trust has granted over $60 million in funding to ultimately provide more than 25,000 AEDs to local law enforcement agencies in Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nevada. So far, about 16,000 have been delivered, with 500 shocks taking place, saving more than 200 lives. 

Panzirer was raised in California but has made South Dakota his home. He graduated from Black Hills State University and pursued pastoral studies at MidAmerica Nazarene University. He and his family own and operate a hunting lodge in rural South Dakota and multiple commercial properties.

“When you look at that, and that’s growing and growing, a lot of times…200 people that’s like the size of a small town,” Panzirer, who is a grandson of Leona Helmsley after whom the trust is named, told the Daily Yonder. 

The initiative started in late 2019 and immediately saw success, he said. 

“When the grant is completed, over 25,000 AEDs will be placed in first responder vehicles across state highway patrol with local law enforcement, county law enforcement, tribal law enforcement, federal law enforcement, and also other state entities like game wardens and state parks and things like that,” Panzirer said. 

The devices are the latest and most-up-to-date systems, he added. 

From the American Heart Association to The Journal of the American Medical Association, studies have shown that early CPR and access to defibrillation save lives.

While AEDs are necessary in all communities, in rural areas, it’s paramount because ambulance services are mostly volunteer, he said. 

“The first people on the scene are the police and sheriff’s deputies or tribal police…because they’re already out on patrol conducting their normal daily assignments in the community,” he said. “So they’re the first ones to get there. They usually beat the ambulance [by] tens of minutes ahead of time, so it’s naturally the smart thing to give them the AEDs and they’re already trained as first responders.”

Panzirer also noted that while $60 million may seem like a lot of money to some people, broken down by the number of lives saved – more than 200 so far – means it comes out to about $275,000 to $300,000 per life saved. 

And he anticipates as more machines are deployed, the cost number will decrease. 

He said it’s important for people to know about the initiative. 

“It’s also important for other states and other communities to see what’s going on, what we’re doing here, and hopefully replicate it in their own communities,” he added.

Panzirer said whether it’s philanthropic or state governments covering the costs, he hopes they see the value in the initiative and offer it in their communities. 

“Because this is something that translates across all 50 states, across urban centers, rural centers, this is something that should resonate with every community member, every citizen across everywhere,” he said. “It could help you. It could help a loved one. When we’re talking about these deployments in these small communities, you probably will end up knowing someone who was saved.”

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