Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Learning to save lives

Published September 13, 2006 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Normally, I find medical matters as interesting as a gossip column about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. So with some trepidation, I trudged off to learn about cardiopulmonary resuscitation and other first responder techniques for medical emergencies.

CPR conjures a TV image of someone blowing air into the mouth of a victim and performing a series of rapid thumps on the person's chest using the heel of a hand. With that in my mind, a dozen or so other middle-aged guys and I convened at our local church hall for evening instruction.

We were joined by two experienced emergency room nurses and a number of flaccid, half-bodied mannequins strewn across the floor. The program, which was conceived to train church helpers (in our case ushers) about emergency procedures, has been in place for some time.

The techniques have been used on more than one occasion after a parishioner turned victim during Sunday services. Ironically, my own father had his first heart attack in 1968 while serving as a church usher.

Oh, but all the things I'd rather be doing tonight, I thought.

The nurse began by discussing the church locations and characteristics of a device she kept referring to as an AED. "Excuse me, what's an AED?" I asked. Answer: automated external defibrillator. Then I knew what she meant, but again, only from television.

For the medically uninitiated like me, an AED is that box-like device with cables at the end of which are pads that adhere to a victim's chest to deliver an electrical shock. I had no idea that these machines are increasingly being deployed throughout public buildings or that AED operation is no longer the exclusive domain of emergency room doctors, paramedics and TV actors.

Of course, no one should "play" at administering CPR, operating an AED or trying to help someone who appears to be choking. It's not child's play. Without proper training, one can do more harm than good before professionals arrive on the scene.

What about the legal liability after trying to help someone who ends up dying during or after CPR you administered? Presuming that the individual trying to help has been properly trained, acts reasonably and is not paid for performing CPR, he or she will most likely be protected.

According to the American Heart Association's student workbook, all 50 states have good Samaritan laws and no "lay rescuer has ever been successfully sued for performing CPR" because these laws protect someone acting in good faith to save a life.

No, it doesn't mean that you won't get served for trying. I hope in that fateful moment when someone drops before me, I won't be paralyzed by fear of a lawsuit. Legal fears preclude a great many of us from performing otherwise humane deeds.

Still not persuaded to take the time to learn these procedures? The Milwaukee office of the American Heart Association provided me information that might compel you or someone you know to obtain training:

• About 75% to 80% of all out-of-hospital cardiac arrests happen at home, and about 900 Americans die every day due to sudden cardiac arrest.

• Effective "bystander CPR" provided immediately after cardiac arrest can double a victim's chance of survival.

• If bystander CPR is not provided, a sudden cardiac arrest victim's chances of survival fall 7% to 10% for every minute of delay until defibrillation. Few attempts at resuscitation are successful if CPR and defibrillation are not provided within minutes of collapse.

You don't have to invest a ton of time, either. The American Heart Association created CPR Anytime for Family and Friends as a simple, affordable way for people to learn CPR in their homes. It costs only $30 and includes a CPR mannequin, a DVD and resource booklet.

To find an American Heart Association CPR or AED course or to order the CPR Anytime kit, call (877) 242-4277.

It's more interesting than a Hollywood gossip column any day.

John Maddente of Delafield works at an international audit firm. His e-mail address is His Web log is at