I heard the screams as soon as I left my apartment; insistent, in a foreign tongue and clearly those of a woman in distress. I hesitated before the elevator and elected to take the stairs. I’m only two floors above ground, and from the stairwell I would be able to process what was happening before I had to act. My first thought was that she was being assaulted; I steeled myself for a possible fight. I arrived at ground level to find a substantial middle-aged woman in hysterics: pacing around, shouting, with tears streaming down her face. She caught sight of me, and sent a volley of words in my direction, most of which I could not process, but one fragment hit my brain, “…ayuda..”
“You need help.” I said,
She nodded, and scurried back through an open doorway into her own apartment. I followed her to the entrance and saw a man lying prone on a couch at the far end of the room. Instantly I took my mobile from my pocket and dialed 911. The operator picked up and I started the process… I explained that an ambulance was needed immediately and gave the address. Then things got a little more complicated.
Another man rushed into the room talking on a phone, followed by a little girl. He approached the casualty and waited, continuing his conversation. Meanwhile, the ambulance operator was asking me about the condition of the casualty.
“Is he breathing?”
I entered the apartment, approached the couch and noted the monkey cowering in a cage at the side of the room. I didn’t have time to focus on how bizarre the situation was. The man on the couch wasn’t breathing, and he didn’t have a pulse. The other man, a member of the apartment management, moved the casualty onto the floor. Then, with the phone in his right hand, he placed his left hand on the man’s chest and pushed feebly. That’s when it registered; we were both talking to ambulance operators, and his operator was trying to teach him CPR over the phone. I hung up and had a moment of confusion. My instincts urged me to escape the situation, but my rational mind had the right thoughts at the ready.
“What if this were you or someone you cared about? You would want a stranger to do whatever it took to help you out.”
The situation was simple. This young man was dying and, if I was going to help him, I needed to do more than make a phone call. I knelt by his side, moved the other man’s hands out of the way and placed my own hands on the casualty’s chest. His left armpit was coated in sweat, his face contorted into a grimace as if he’d had a seizure. By now it was clear he had gone into cardiac arrest. I pushed down forcefully and started compressing his chest. It felt just like a first aid training dummy. More people entered the room as I drove down with my shoulders. I remembered being told how much force it took to perform compressions effectively, so I didn’t hold back. The other man prompted me,
“She says do a set of thirty.”
I did a set of thirty and caught a woman I recognized out of the corner of my eye.
“Breathe into his mouth,” I told her, firmly.
She knelt down next to me and asked, “How do I do it?” I made an inhale/exhale gesture and she hesitated for a moment, winced, and then forced air from her lungs into his. I knew her from the gym; girls who weight-train have got the right character.
I started another set of thirty, counting each one out loud.
“The operator says you know what you’re doing, she says it’s perfect,” said the other man, smiling weakly.
I wasn’t certain of what I was doing, but I had the most knowledge out of those at the scene. A crowd of about 20 had gathered now.
“Is anyone here trained in CPR?” I shouted as I started another set of compressions. Nobody moved, no response, my meagre knowledge was all this guy had. The color had begun to drain from the casualty’s face, he was on the path to death. I felt a rib buckle against my palm as I continued the compressions; I felt encouraged, it was a sign that I was performing them correctly.
“Where’s the f*cking ambulance?!” shouted the girl, panicking. I looked her in the eyes, “We’re all he’s got right now, just focus on what we’re doing, when the ambulance arrives they’ll take over.” I was certain of my words; the actions we were taking were the only thing that we could control. I wasn’t going to stop until they took him off my hands. She gave him another breath and the cycles of compressions continued. His body jolted a couple of times from the force, but there was still no breathing and no pulse. A few minutes later, a paramedic came rushing in. As soon as he was close to the patient I moved aside for him to continue. I exited the apartment wordlessly, their training and equipment were far sharper tools than my bare hands. I rested by a pillar outside of the ground floor apartment and waited as the resuscitation attempt continued. The hysterical woman approached me to thank me as did the apartment manager. At the time I couldn’t understand why they were thanking me, I hadn’t achieved anything. In hindsight they were thanking me for taking responsibility. Everyone at the scene knew that something had to be done and my taking control alleviated any risk of the guilt of inaction. I heard the paddles charging as the medic tried to restart the patient’s heart with a defibrillator.
Soon an ambulance with sirens blaring made it into the yard of the apartment complex. A stretcher was wheeled out, the casualty was placed on it, and the two were whisked back into the ambulance together. The crowd remained but the scene was gone. The apartment manager told me that the patient hadn’t been resuscitated before they placed him on the ambulance. I nodded in acknowledgement.
“You did the right thing,” he said. I would hear that phrase a lot over the next few hours. I stood alone in the night as the crowd dispersed. Hollywood would have one believe that an effective CPR results in the patient spluttering to life, his heart beating again. I felt like I had failed. I banished those thoughts quickly; at least I had acted, imagine if I had run away? That would be failure. I felt that I wasn’t supposed to process this without support, so I called my girlfriend who was out for dinner with colleagues. The phone rang but there was no answer. I remembered the England football game was on and so headed out of the apartment complex and down the hill towards the pub. There would be faces there at least, even if not familiar faces. I took a seat at the bar and recognized the girl serving. I ordered a ‘Bitter lemon’ (I don’t drink alcohol) and told her why I was spaced out,
“I just gave a man CPR,” I said, “and I don’t know whether he’ll live or die.”
The world kept spinning on its axis as on every other night; the Swedes in the bar cheered as Sweden scored against the Irish. The expats roared as England trounced Moldova, and in an ICU in Malta the man I had performed CPR on was fighting for his life.
My girlfriend called back and I related the news. “Oh God, I’ll come right away,” she said. She picked me up from the bar and made sure I got something to eat at a nearby Japanese restaurant. I was still processing the events, but she listened patiently as I explained the details. “You’re a hero!” she said. She’s great like that.
The weight of responsibility was gradually dawning on me. ‘Did I put my hands in the right place? What if I had been missing his heart and actually helping less than if someone had just been guided by an ambulance operator? Would his family blame me if he died? At least I did the compressions hard enough. What if he survived? Wouldn’t I then actually be a …?’ I cut that thought off. In my mind I assumed he hadn’t made it; it seemed safer to accept that now than to hope he survived and be devastated later. Gradually, with my girlfriend’s help, I arranged my thoughts. My actions had increased the probability of this man’s survival. There were a huge number of possible outcomes, but he lived in more of those cases as a consequence of me taking action. Independently of whether he lived or died, I had done ‘the right thing’. I find it tough enough remaining sanguine about a suckout from a regfish at the PLO tables; try not being ‘results-oriented’ when it’s life-or-death. We went home, and I got on with my weekend.
Two days later I went to train in the gym. I was still spacing out a little between sets, musing on death as simple cessation. I use the sheer exertion from lifting heavy to train myself to embrace discomfort; it is through our actions that we live. The girl who had helped at the casualty scene approached me and started to speak before I had time to react. “Did you hear?” she said. I looked her in the eyes, waiting for her to deliver the verdict.
“The doctors called the apartment management from the ICU. He survived and will make a full recovery. They said to tell whoever did the CPR that his actions saved the man’s life.”
I hugged her and tears came to my eyes as I was overwhelmed for a moment. Her boyfriend came over to introduce himself,
“Hello Lifesaver,” he chimed as we fist-bumped. A certain kind of lightness came over me, a burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I trained extra hard, invigorated by the news and with an assortment of positive ideas bouncing around in my skull. I was still buzzing when I left for lunch with my girlfriend. The events of that night were still being processed yet now we knew the result: I had helped save a man’s life. I wasn’t sure how to feel, I’ve always been uncomfortable with personal ceremony. People save lives every day: surgeons, soldiers, lifeguards; it wasn’t as if I was the only person involved. Sure I took the lead at the scene, but there were paramedics and A&E staff who did the real work. I was already diminishing my acts in my own mind. But as I discussed it with her beaming across the table a thought came to me,
“The way to understand it,” I said, “is to imagine how I would feel towards the stranger if I had been the casualty and he had helped me.” That crystallized it; this was a big deal.
I allowed myself a thick banoffee milkshake (I know how to party, right?) and paired that indulgence with pride in a good deed.
It could have been so very different.
You see I wasn’t taught first aid at school, or in university. And if I hadn’t learned first aid myself I would have been just another bystander, gawking helplessly whilst a young man died before my eyes. I would have had 20-odd years of formal education, none of which had prepared me to help this man when he needed it most. The first few minutes after a cardiac arrest are crucial. Cardiac arrest results in death within minutes if not immediately corrected. At the time I thought my objective was to restart his heart, but my hands were forcing oxygenated blood around his body to keep his organs alive. If I hadn’t taken it upon myself to learn first aid 4 months before, I could have been standing there with the very real regret of inaction as another human being paid the price.
I’m sharing this with you because I used to be the kind of guy that didn’t get things done. I can distinctly remember writing ‘learn first aid’ on a To-do list 10 years ago! Around 18 months ago, I at last got tired with my own bullshit and committed fully to following through on my plans. That this blog emerged over this period is no coincidence. Of course it was a slow process, I didn’t change overnight, I still procrastinated (and still do) over some tasks and I met with days of frustration. Yet I started to get organized; I listed all of the things I wanted to achieve in a document and broke down the actions each would take to achieve them. And somewhere, buried amongst my desires and dreams, lay a simple goal: ‘Learn first aid’. Only this time the task was broken down into steps. Research possible courses; call for quotes; arrange transport. So when it eventually came up as a priority task, there was no logistical barrier to executing. Yet still there was mental inertia to be conquered. When the time came to book, the excuses came flooding out. Won’t it be boring? (It was.) Will it take time away from my work? (It did?) How likely am I