How to save a life – first-aid advice you’ll actually remember

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A British Heart Foundation report suggests that our reluctance to intervene is killing people who are in cardiac arrest. Here are some simple, memorable steps you can take to help

CPR should be given to the rhythm of Stayin’ Alive (about 100-120 beats per minute).
CPR should be given to the rhythm of Stayin’ Alive (about 100-120 beats per minute). Photograph: Ruth Jenkinson/Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley

What would you do if you saw someone collapse, clutching his chest? Spring into action, or trust that somebody else might? Maybe it’s not that serious, I think he’ll be OK. Wouldn’t want to cause a fuss, right? Well quite possibly he isn’t OK, and, according to a new report, only three or four in 10 of us intervene in these circumstances, at the cost of thousands of lives.

Resuscitation to Recovery, published this week by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), reveals that a lack of confidence and training – and even a fear of embarrassment – are killing cardiac arrest victims. The stats are stark: survival chances drop by around 10% with each minute without a shock to the heart, either by CPR or a defibrillator. After 10 minutes, survival chances drop to 2%.

“The most common thing people say to us is they wouldn’t do anything because they wouldn’t want to make things worse,” says Clive James, a trainer with St John Ambulance. “But in the case of cardiac arrest, you can’t make it worse because if you don’t do something that person will die.”

Waiting for an ambulance is not an option, and the report estimates that 1,000 lives a year could be saved with improved training and awareness, and the provision of more public defibrillators, which carry simple instructions.

James, 52, who started learning first aid as a nine-year-old cadet, says aide-memoires are vital in making advice stick, and giving people the confidence to act. In the case of CPR, he advises providers to compress the chest to the rhythm of Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees (a method famously advocated by Vinnie Jones in a 2012 BHF advert). “It used to be Nellie the Elephant but the key is that it’s faster than people think,” he says (about 100-120 beats per minute).

St John Ambulance also uses “FAST” for spotting the signs of a stroke (Facial weakness; Arm weakness; Speech problems; Time to call 999). For choking victims, there are four steps: cough; slap; squeeze it out; call for help (encourage the person to cough, use five sharp blows to the back, squeeze out the obstruction using up to five abdominal thrusts or Heimlich manoeuvres, then, if all else fails, call). The final step is call for help.

The new report also illustrates how first-aid advice evolves, incorporating new research. “When I started there are things we’d consider to be barbaric today,” James says. Broken collar bones were bandaged forcefully in such a way to separate the bones. “Now we just say get the arm into the most comfortable position for the person to get them to hospital.”

In 2014, St John Ambulance issued new advice on helping choking babies. Previously, parents were told to place the child face down along one forearm and strike the baby’s back with the other hand. Now the advice is to place the baby on a thigh while sitting down, supporting it with one hand while striking with the other (five times with the heel of the hand between the shoulder blades).

Amazingly, first-aid training is still not required in schools. In 2015, the BHF, St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross expressed their dismay after Tory backbenchers blocked a bill that would have made it compulsory in secondary schools. In the meantime, awareness is key. “Nobody should ever be afraid to help someone in need,” James says.

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