Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Knowing What To Do In An Emergency

So, I attended a political caucus meeting last night (in my state, this is the step before a primary election), and ended up getting briefly sucked into a medical emergency. It reinforced the notion that it is important to know what to do in a medical crisis.

As the various nominees were talking about their background and qualifications, a man in the audience near me suddenly collapsed. His knees buckled and he simply sprawled backwards (luckily a half filled box of papers cushioned his fall). He was completely inert and unresponsive.

This was so unexpected. Most of us in the room knew the man from our neighborhood, one of nature's authentic nice guys. There was a collective gasp from the 30-40 people in the room. Everyone just stood there for a beat or two; it took a few moments to compute what was happening.

I asked his wife if he is diabetic, she said no. I got out my phone, dialed 911, and asked if he was breathing. He wasn't, so I hit the call button. As I started talking to the 911 dispatcher, somebody began administering chest compressions.

Fortunately, a friend had been talking recently about what to say when you call 911. As soon as the dispatcher answered, I knew exactly what to say:

Me: I am at ----- ----- Junior High School in [city]. A 50 year old man has just collapsed and is not breathing. He is not diabetic. Someone has started administering CPR.

Dispatcher: You say he is not breathing. Is he having a seizure?

Me: He does not appear to be having a seizure, although his eyes appear to have rolled up into his head.

Dispatcher: Stay on the line. I am going to put you on hold while I get an ambulance. Could you have someone go to the front of the school to meet the ambulance?

The good news is the man started to revive while I was on hold. He seemed surprised to be on the floor, and was totally unaware of the drama that had occured around him. He assured everyone that he was alright, and left the room to get some fresh air. His wife declined the ambulance (they are expensive) and everyone went home safely.

Some takeaways from last night's drama:

1) When you call 911, stay calm. Clearly express where you are (give the address if you know it, especially if you are on a cell phone), what happened, how old the person is, and any important / relevant details (e.g. "They are performing CPR", or "The person is bleeding a lot from [this] area"). Try to give correct information. Answer questions clearly.

2) When the person started administering CPR, he didn't seem like he was sure what to do. I don't know how they determined that the man wasn't breathing. I didn't see anyone feel under his nose, so I am guessing that they just looked at his chest. Nobody felt for a pulse. Nobody tried slapping him on the cheek or speaking loudly into his ear. Someone probably should have done these things before starting CPR.

(Disclaimer: I am not a doctor of medical expert in any way. This is simply my untrained opinion. Any EMTs out there, please feel free to correct me if I am wrong)

It is my understanding that administering CPR to someone whose heart is still beating can cause harm. Don't get me wrong; I am glad that somebody was willing to try to step up and help, and I know that hindsight is 20/20. So, this leads to my third point:

3) Know what to do in an emergency. Even basic knowledge of what to do in an emergency will save lives. Take basic CPR / First Aid classes. The American Red Cross offers them on a regular basis for a moderate fee. Hospitals, colleges, and many large workplaces will occasionally offer the classes for free or for a small fee. Take advantage of these opportunities to learn. My workplace is going to offer a 3 hour CPR-AED-First Aid class in a couple of weeks. I plan on being there.

Although it can seem unlikely that you will ever need to know this stuff, imagine what it would be like to watch somebody die because you don't know basic stuff that you could have learned at a couple of evening classes. Now imaging taking a couple of 2-3 hour classes, and knowing what to do in an emergency, and saving someone's life. Less than 10 years ago, I had to give my infant daughter mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after she stopped breathing. Because I had taken first aid as a 14 year old Boy Scout, I knew how to resuscitate an infant (you cover mouth and nose with your mouth), and possibly saved her life. I am sure glad that I had a basic understanding of what to do--at least enough to keep her alive until the ambulance got there. Sign up for a class. Give up an evening or afternoon (or two) to learn these basic skills. You may just save a life. And it may be someone you love.

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