Court clerk dies after Shelby County defibrillators fail to work

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The seconds and minutes after a heart attack could mean the difference between life and death.

That`s the reason Automatic External Defibrillators exist.

They were designed to get your heart pumping again until paramedics arrive.

WREG Investigator Stephanie Scurlock uncovered the shocking truth about the failure of these life saving devices in one of the busiest public buildings in the Mid-South.

"I heard one of the clerks in court say Ms. Marzine with a concerned sound in her voice and I turned and looked and her head was rocked all the way back leaned all the way back, mouth open and she was obviously in some distress," Attorney Claiborne Ferguson said.

December 16, 2014, Marzine Pegues, a clerk at 201 Poplar, collapsed inside the courtroom where she worked for almost 30 years.

"After a few minutes of her not responding it was apparent that she'd either fainted or there was something more serious going on," said Ferguson.

Ferguson and another attorney checked Pegues and found she had little to no pulse.

They laid her down and started CPR while courtroom deputies scrambled to grab a life saving automatic defibrillator from the hallway.

"He opened it. He opened up her shirt. He began to put the pads on the manner in which the photo said. Turned it on and it didn't do anything," said Ferguson.

Things went downhill from there.

"At some point he went out and got the second one. It too didn't work," Ferguson said.

Desperate to get Pegues' heart pumping again the deputy ran back for a third defibrillator.

"I don't remember if that one was ever opened because at that point we had two that completely failed to work as they were supposed to work. So we just continued with the chest compressions until the paramedics arrived," said Ferguson.

Pegues never regained consciousness.

She died at Methodist hospital a few days before she planned to celebrate Christmas with her family.

WREG Investigator Stephanie Scurlock broke the news about the defibrillators to Pegues' daughters.

She asked if they thought the county should have mentioned the defibrillators failed to work.

Her daughter Robin Walton responded, "Yes! Because that might have made the difference. Not saying that it would have saved her life but we'll never know now because it didn't work."

Shelby County owns 201 Poplar.

WREG went to administrators to find out why the defibrillators failed to work.

"Shelby County is responsible for maintaining the equipment and the battery was low and should have picked that up, but sort of like the battery in your car sometimes the battery goes out and you don't even know it," Public Works Director Tom Needham told us.

The defibrillators were designed to make a chirping sound when the batteries are low, much like a smoke detector.

Installed in 2008, Needham said the batteries last 5 years.

He didn't say if anybody ever changed or checked the batteries after installing them at the CJC six years ago.

WREG asked Needham if they dropped the ball on making sure defibrillators worked.

"I'd say we could have done a little bit better job of maintaining a battery in a unit knowing it was operational or not operational," Needham responded.

Two weeks after Pegues' death, Needham said all 100 defibrillators in Shelby County buildings received new batteries.

"I would hate to think that it took the death of a clerk to make sure that the automatic defibrillators worked," said Attorney Ferguson.

Doctors determined Pegues died from organ failure caused by ventricular fibrillation, or sudden cardiac death.

WREG obtained video that showed Pegues celebrating with family a few months before she collapsed.

Her daughters said she was full of life, loved working and might still be alive if the machine designed to revive her had worked.

"She put 100% in it and then to know that this equipment was not working," said her daughter Vicki Holmes. "No, something needs to be looked over and that's what you're doing."

Shelby County administrators told WREG the defibrillators are now checked monthly to see if they're working.

They said the life span of the batteries is five years but they plan to replace them every three years.

Automatic defibrillators are supposed to be so easy to use that Shelby County administrators have not scheduled training for employees since they were installed in 2008.

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