This spring, I relived a moment that will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. One year earlier, my first patient died on me.
These memories are crystal clear. I can remember every action, every thought of that fateful hour, and, as such, I question each one. If I hooked up the AED faster, maybe my patient would have lived. If I ran faster, maybe my patient could have lived. If. If. If. If.
Yet, like the incident one year ago, I’ve come to the realization that there was nothing I could have done. Their heart stopped before we even got there.
However, others could have done something. In the past few years, we have faced a constant struggle to lengthen peoples’ life spans. Mayor Bloomberg has fought against tobacco and soda sales. President Obama has pushed for public health care. Others have campaigned for better funding for medical research. While all of the aforementioned campaigns have some merit, there is a simple way to help that is frequently overlooked: teaching CPR.
In the medical field, most deaths fall under the term “clinical death.” Clinical death simply means an individual has stopped breathing and circulating blood, frequently caused by abnormal heart activity called cardiac arrest. As a person is dying, in roughly 80 percent of cases, his or her heart enters a state known as ventricular fibrillation. In this state, the heart has tremors as the normal electrical signals go haywire. CPR is used to keep the actual cells in the brain and other vital organs alive long enough to reset the heart’s electrical system with defibrillation. Yet for it to save such organs, CPR must be performed within the first five minutes of cardiac arrest. Otherwise, any revived patient would be permanently comatose.
But here’s the hard part: It often takes EMS personnel over five minutes to get to a patient after being called. Studies have shown that bystander CPR can double, or even triple, a patient’s chance of survival. And that’s not all—if a bystander defibrillates a patient within four minutes of cardiac arrest, the survival rate can increase by another factor of three. The sooner the care is provided, the better.
Unfortunately, though, very few people are trained. The American Heart Association, the leading certifier in CPR, estimates that only around 30 percent of Americans have CPR training—mostly individuals in the medical fields. As such, fewer than one third of all deaths receive proper bystander CPR.
Proposed solutions include mandating learning CPR for health insurance and mandating it as a requirement for all high school students. While the legislature debates—and eventually ignores—all the proposals, Columbia students must act.
Columbia trains future leaders. Our classmates comprise some of the best and brightest who will lead in the fields of industry, finance, politics, academia, and any others they may pursue. But with that leadership also comes great responsibility to their fields, and to society as a whole. Society has shaped who we are today, whether through federal financial aid, our schools, or our local communities. Thus, as leaders, it is our duty to do what’s best for society so it can continue to help others. One such way involves the expansion of CPR instruction.
The first step is to learn CPR ourselves. In a city like New York, this is fairly easy. Dozens of institutions offer training within the city, while Columbia CPR offers courses to student groups and organizations right on campus. The courses are only a few hours—the same few hours you might be looking to fill when avoiding that paper you have to write. Through the repurposing of a few hours of procrastination, you can easily learn a life-changing skill. If those few hours still seem oppressive, download the AHA’s Pocket First Aid & CPR app, and watch its videos on hands-only CPR. While not as good as a full course, these materials are better than nothing.
Second: Use your influence to make sure more people can save lives. Instead of arguing with your parents about that intro to anthro course that redefined the world for you, help them learn a useful skill and encourage them to take a CPR class. Or you could help convince your campus organizations to take a group CPR class. It can save a life.
While it is too late for my first patient, I can only hope that in the future I will be relieved when the next patient is brought in, because a bystander started CPR and saved his or her life.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore and a member of CU-EMS.
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