'How I saved mum's life': Pauline Millar on why we all need to learn CPR
These three people are extremely fortunate to be alive. When they suffered cardiac arrest, someone nearby knew how to resuscitate them. To encourage more of us to learn CPR, they tell Stephanie Bell their remarkable stories
Would you know what to do if a loved one collapsed with a sudden heart attack or cardiac arrest? If the answer is no then you may not be shocked to learn that only 10% of people who suffer a cardiac episode outside of hospital in Northern Ireland will survive.
In 2011/2012, there were around 1,400 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests, but the simple solution to this sobering statistic is for more of us to learn basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) skills, which could double a person's chances of survival.
That's the aim of a new community resuscitation strategy for Northern Ireland just announced by Health Minister Edwin Poots which, it is hoped, will significantly increase the number of people with CPR skills. And far from needing a medical degree, it takes only two hours to train someone in the basic skills that will equip them to save lives.
"It is important that we significantly increase the number of people with CPR skills so that they could provide help to someone who suffers an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest," said Mr Poots.
"That can make a big difference to the person's chances of survival and to their quality of life after the event.
"That is why I asked my chief medical officer to develop a community resuscitation strategy for Northern Ireland.
"By definition, a community resuscitation strategy has to be a collaborative effort involving the active participation of many people in all walks of life."
We talk to two people who believe they wouldn't be here today if they had not received immediate CPR from members of the public, as well as one woman who was able to save her mum's life from information picked up from watching medical dramas on TV.
If ever fate conspired to save someone's life it was Lynda Donaldson's. Three years after dropping to the ground with a no warning cardiac arrest outside her Saintfield business, Lynda still marvels at the series of bizarre coincidences without which she is certain she would not have survived.
"When you tell the story to people it sounds like the script of a movie which you would say has been exaggerated and couldn't possibly happen in real life," she says.
Lynda (54), who runs the Main Street Diner in Saintfield with her partner Graham Walsh, fell to the ground outside the fish and chip shop on January 17, 2011, when her heart suddenly stopped beating.
She had no history of heart trouble, no warning and no pain. It just so happened that the town centre was being resurfaced which had slowed traffic to a crawl, allowing two passers-by who would not normally be in the area to see what had happened.
The first was a nurse who had been on her way home to Bangor after attending a training course in Ballynahinch. She abandoned her car and immediately performed CPR on Lynda. A man who also lived in Bangor, and who also had been attending a different course in Ballynahinch, was also sitting in traffic.
He happened to have a defibrillator in his car which had been given to him for charity by an anonymous donor.
He also abandoned his car and ran to Lynda’s aid.
“I just dropped dead, that’s what happens when you go into cardiac arrest, your heart stops beating,” she says.
“For every minute that passes your chances of survival decreases by 10% and there are various levels of survival.
“Your brain is being starved of oxygen so there is a real risk of brain damage. Getting CPR really quickly is critical.
“Michelle McAvoy, a school nurse in Strathern Upper, was passing and saw me fall and came straight out of her car and knew immediately what had happened and started CPR.
“A man named Phil, who was also sitting in traffic, left his car and ran over with the defibrillator. He gave me one shock and I got more CPR and I was sitting on the path talking to them both when the emergency services arrived.
“They were both complete strangers, both lived in Bangor and both had been on courses in Ballynhainch and they also both said it was unusual for them to be in Saintfield.
“Both had been delayed in their journeys and so should have passed through the town earlier.
“Sometimes I think to myself ‘Did that really happen?’ It just seems too far-fetched to be true that someone would turn up with a defibrillator at the very moment my life depended on it and someone else who had trained in CPR happened to be there.”
There was no diagnosis for Lynda’s heart condition but she was fitted with an implant defibrillator as a precaution.
It proved a life-changing moment for her and she has since been determined to ensure that no one else has to depend on coincidence when their life is in danger.
She has fundraised to help equip her home town with four defibrillators and 10 local shopkeepers have since been trained in CPR.
She too has not only trained in the crucial life-saving skills but has become a trainer, working part time through the British Heart Foundation programme Heart Start.
Lynda brings the lifesaving courses into the community to equip ordinary people of all ages with skills covering what to do if someone is choking or bleeding, how to perform CPR, put people in recovery positions and recognise heart health.
So far 530 people have been through the programme which she describes as a “fun and very enjoyable” two hours of training.
“They are very simple skills that will save lives,” she says. “I believe what happened to me was for a reason. I need to do something to make people aware of it and to see people trained in CPR.
“I believe everyone should be trained and I would like to see CPR and choking prevention taught in schools as part of life skills in the curriculum so that the next generation know what to do.
“My case was unusual because it happened in the street but 75% happen in the home and so in most cases people would be saving the lives of loved ones.”
Lynda is also supporting a local campaigning charity, Defibs4Kids, which aims to see all local schools equipped with defibrillators; so far 170 schools have been equipped with the life-saving devices.
“I’m just trying to do as much as I can,” says Lynda.
“I would love to be able to devote all of my time to it but I have a business to run. I hope people will get in touch about the Heart Start programme and give us a chance to bring these lifesaving skills to their group or town.
“Defibrillators are also crucial and they cost between £800 and £1,200 so it is not out of the way to raise the money for one, especially when you consider the lives that can be saved.”
‘How watching ER helped me save mum after she had heart attack in my kitchen’
Pauline Millar was in her kitchen chatting to her mum Sheila Obsorne, who was making a cup of tea, when her mum suddenly collapsed.
Pauline has no formal lifesaving training and used what she had gleaned from TV to save her mum’s life.
She has since gone on to train in CPR and joined the charity Defib4Kids as a campaigner helping to highlight the importance of life-saving training for everyone.
Pauline (40), a full-time mum from Derriaghy, is married to Paul (42) a child services manager with Barnardos and they have three children Eoin (10), Sam (7) and Conor (2).
She recalls the terrifying events of the morning of July 25 last year.
“It was a lovely morning and mum had just put the kettle on for a cup of tea,” she says. “She was standing at the cooker and we were talking when she started to fall.
“I thought she had fainted and I rolled her on to her side and tried to waken her.
“I put her in the recovery position which I had seen on TV. She started to make strange sounds and I realised she hadn’t taken a breath in.
“She also went a terrible colour and her lips were turning blue. I checked for a pulse and there was none.” Asking little Eoin, who was nine at the time, to dial 999, Pauline attempted CPR based on what she had seen from watching the TV programme ER.
The emergency services operator then talked her through exactly how to perform the lifesaving technique until the paramedics arrived.
“I put mum’s head back and pinched her nose and breathed in through her mouth and saw her chest rising,” she says. “I wasn’t sure where exactly to put my hands on her chest or how many compressions to do.
“The man on the phone talked me through it, first through Eoin and then Eoin held the phone to my ear while Sam opened the door for the paramedics.
“The boys were amazing that morning, even though they were distressed by what had happened to their granny.
“The paramedics were fantastic and they used a defibrillator to shock mum and she was talking in the ambulance.
“They did tell me that what I did saved her life.
“It is so shocking to think that mum is one of just 10% of people who survive a cardiac arrest outside of hospital.”
Sheila (65) had a stent inserted in her heart immediately after being admitted to hospital and has made a full recovery.
The cardiac arrest was all the more shocking because she was a fit, active woman who didn’t smoke and followed a healthy diet.
Pauline has since trained in CPR and says she can’t now overemphasise how much it means to have the assurance of knowing that she has the skills to help someone if their life is on the line.
“I just can’t explain how important CPR is,” she says. “With mum I was working blind.
“The training is so easy and has made me feel more confident. It has given me the knowledge and knowledge is power and now I don’t think I would feel helpless anymore.
“It is do or die and I thank God I did what I did and I saved my mum’s life.
“I can’t put into words how amazing my mum is, she is the absolute cornerstone of our lives and the last person in the world you would think would have a cardiac arrest.”
‘I owe my life to mystery donor who donated defibrillator'
Sporty Robyn McCready was just 22 and in the middle of a Taekwondo class when he suddenly collapsed.
He had no previous history of heart problems and the only warning that his life was in peril was a few seconds of dizziness before he blacked out.
The same anonymous donor who had bought the defibrillator which saved Lynda Donaldson’s life had also donated one to Bangor Leisure Centre where Robyn was training.
This, and the fact that the class teacher was trained in CPR, almost certainly saved the Belfast man’s life.
Now 29 and working in IT as a senior support engineer, Robyn is newly married to Gilli (29), who works in social media.
He recalls his brush with death and the impact it has had on his life.
“I was into sport and played hockey and football and had just taken up Taekwondo,” he says.
“We were warming up and doing sprints across the room when I suddenly started to feel dizzy. I went to get a drink of water and as I reached down for the water bottle I collapsed and blacked out.
“All I remember was coming round about 5-10 minutes later with all these concerned faces standing over me.
“The instructor in the class was trained in CPR and there were two leisure centre staff next door that also helped to resuscitate me.
“I was given four shocks from the defibrillator which brought me round. It transpired that my heart had gone into an abnormal rhythm and apparently when that happens the only thing that will keep you alive is CPR and a defibrillator.
“Without them you only have a 2% chance of surviving so there was a very high probability that I would have died.”
Robyn spent three weeks in the Ulster Hospital where he was given the shock diagnosis that he had a form of cardiomyopathy, which is a DNA-linked heart condition.
It meant the rest of his family had to be tested and as a result his mum, brother and uncle also discovered they too carried the rogue gene.
Every one of them has had to undergo a procedure to have a defibrillator implant.
“It was a shock for the whole family,” says Robyn. “The implant monitors the heartbeat and if it detects abnormal rhythms it gives you a shock.
“Having it does give you peace of mind. At the start I was frightened but I found a support group, Livewires, which really helped and I am now a committee member.
“You just have to get on with life and not exert yourself too much. I think it is critical that everyone has basic CPR skills and also having defibrillators should be commonplace.
“I tried to find out who the lady was who donated the defibrillator which saved my life but she wanted to remain anonymous and I respect that.
“She saved my life and the gratitude I have for her is enormous.”
First aid steps we all should know
1) If you see someone who you think has had a cardiac arrest call 999 immediately
2) Shout for help and send someone for a defibrillator (AED), if there is one available
3) Don’t panic — you can help. If you’re on the phone with the 999 operator, they will also be able to guide you
4) Immediately begin CPR if the person is unresponsive and not breathing normally
5) If you haven’t been trained in CPR, you should perform hands-only compressions: rest one hand on top of the other and interlock your fingers. Push hard and fast on the centre of the victim’s chest with the heel of your hand
6) Compress the chest at least 2in/5cm (adults) or 1/3 depth of the chest (children and infants)
7) Provide 100 compressions per minute counting out loud to maintain a rhythm — ‘one and two and three and four ...’
8) Keep the rhythm going until the ambulance arrives. If someone else is there and is able to, they can take over if you get tired
9) The biggest tip is to get trained and refresh your CPR training at least once every two years, as skills can deteriorate
Why more must learn CPR
About 30,000 people each year in the UK have cardiac arrests outside of hospital, of which less than 10% will survive to be discharged from hospital. Three-quarters of out of hospital cardiac arrests occur in the home
Each year around 3,500 people are admitted to hospital in Northern Ireland with a heart attack