Lisburn woman is on a mission to save others after two strangers saved her life
When Lynda Donaldson, from Lisburn, was suddenly taken ill, she was lucky a woman with CPR skills and a man with a portable defibrillator came to her aid. Laurence White reports
A Lisburn woman who was snatched from the jaws of death by an amazing coincidence has embarked on a life-saving crusade of her own.
Lynda Donaldson, along with partner Graham Walsh and two friends, are helping train people in techniques that can revive anyone who suffers a cardiac arrest.
It is a mission which is - forgive the pun - very dear to her own heart.
For Lynda (55) suffered a cardiac arrest four years ago and was saved only because two passers-by were trained in the vital skills she now teaches.
She recalls: "At the time, Graham and I owned a cafe and a fish and chip shop in Saintfield. It had been a terrible spell of very cold weather, and when we went back into the fish and chip shop and the apartment above after Christmas, we discovered that the water pipes had burst.
"The flood brought down ceilings, destroyed floors and damaged electrical equipment. It was a really stressful time for us.
"On January 17, we had been to our insurance company and decided to call into the premises on the way back home to see how repair work was getting on.
"Graham was a step in front of me as we approached the door. Suddenly, I felt dizzy and collapsed. It wasn't a heart attack, which is usually caused by a blockage in one of the arteries leading to the heart. Instead, I had suffered cardiac arrest, which is caused by an electrical fault in the heart. It was getting so many impulses, it just stopped beating."
Lynda is almost evangelical in stressing the difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack. The speed of response in treating the former is even more critical than in treating the latter.
She says: "It is estimated that for every minute you endure cardiac arrest, your chances of survival diminish by 10%. That is why treatment cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and/or by an automatic defibrillator as soon as possible is so vital."
Lynda returns to her own drama: "I was turning a bad colour very quickly. Fortunately for me, the road passing the shop was under repair that day and traffic was moving very slowly.
"A lady I later discovered to be Michelle McAvoy saw me on the ground. She had been on a training course at Ballynahinch. She is a teacher and had been telling school kids how to perform CPR. She knew I was in trouble and came over right away to start CPR.
"At the same time, a man called Phil Batt, who had been giving a training course in first aid at another location in Ballynahinch, also spotted me. He had a defibrillator in his car, and he raced over, put the pads on me and essentially kick-started my heart.
"If someone had written that as a film script, people would say it was too far-fetched. But these two people saved my life and that is why I am keen to tell my story to anyone who will listen," Lynda adds.
She had regained consciousness by the time the emergency services reached the shop, but had to undergo a battery of tests to determine what had caused her cardiac arrest.
"One consultant came over to me and said, 'You don't know how lucky you are to be alive'.
"The doctors could not find any cause for my collapse, but I now have an implanted defibrillator which monitors my heart constantly and which would give me a shock if required."
Her brush with death compelled Lynda to learn more about the condition and the techniques that can help people survive as she did.
She discovered that there are around 1,400 cardiac arrests in Northern Ireland annually, and that the survival rate is poor - 6% to 10%. Around 80% of incidents occur in the home.
Lynda says: "My message is simple. If you learn how to do CPR, the chances are that the person who you will help will be someone that you know and love. I was saved by strangers, but that is a rarity."
Determined to learn the required skills, Lynda and Graham contacted the British Heart Foundation and organised a training session for other shopkeepers in Saintfield. They were given a demonstration of CPR and Phil Batt showed how to use the automatic defibrillator, which can literally talk anyone through the required procedures. She then asked if they could be trained as trainers. That was the beginning of her mission, which is performed voluntarily.
"Myself, Graham and our friends have been demonstrating the techniques to interested groups in places like Lisburn, Downpatrick, Dundrum, Katesbridge, Saintfield, Stoneyford and Banbridge," Lynda says. Groups like keep-fit classes or walking groups or maybe just a few friends contact us and we go along to teach them.
"Sometimes, we can be out four or five times a month, but usually it is about once every two weeks. We rely on people contacting us. The summer months are quiet because most groups are on holiday then.
"It is not a chore to do this. We have great fun at many of the groups, and if the people all know each other there can be terrific banter, even if it is a serious message that we are trying to get across.
"We have special mannequins to enable us to demonstrate how to do the chest compressions properly, and we also emphasise that the automatic defibrillators can do no harm. They automatically sense if a person is suffering a cardiac arrest and if an electric charge is required. If not, then the machine does nothing.
"People should also remember that if they telephone 999 for emergency assistance, the operator is there to help them on what to do. If they have some training as well, then they are well prepared for the challenge facing them."
Lynda's next challenge is to get a new British Heart Foundation initiative in every post-primary school in Northern Ireland.
Entitled Call, Push, Rescue, it is a kit of 35 inflatable mannequins and a series of DVDs on how to perform CPR.
Lynda says: "It is a great practical aid and it is free. I believe there are some 70 post-primary schools in the province which have not yet signed up to this initiative, and I intend to contact them all before Christmas to spell out the benefits of it.
"I believe it would be a great advantage to teenage pupils to learn these skills. If CPR was on the curriculum or even an after-school project, we would have a nation of life-savers at the end of the programme."
She explains her zeal: "Michelle and Phil have given me extra years of life. They also saved Graham and his two children suffering a bereavement. This was not just saving my life but also giving something to the rest of my family.
"We are teaching people skills we hope they never have to us. We are also alerting people to the need to get help as quickly as possible if they do encounter someone suffering from cardiac arrest. "
She cites the example of Chicago, where CPR is taught in schools and where defibrillators are commonplace in businesses and other places where people congregate. "The survival rate from cardiac arrest there is 52% - more than five times ours," Lynda says. "If similar initiatives were taken here, we could dramatically improve survival rates".
Anyone wanting to book a training session should email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the HeartStartLisb facebook page. Other HeartStart groups can be found on the British Heart Foundation website www.bhf.org.uk
10 top tips for good heart health
BHF Northern Ireland’s top 10 tips for good heart health are:
1. Give up smoking
Stopping smoking is the single best thing you could do to improve your heart health. Smokers are twice as likely to suffer a heart attack than non-smokers.
2. Maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of getting diabetes, having high blood pressure and high cholesterol — three key risk factors for coronary heart disease.
3. Lead an active lifestyle
Keeping physically active can help you maintain a strong and healthy heart. It can also help you keep your weight and blood pressure in check.
4. Ditch the salt
Having too much can make us more likely to develop high blood pressure.
5. Eat your 5-a-day
A well-balanced diet should include five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
6. Cut the saturated fat
Eating too much saturated fat can cause high cholesterol, putting you at greater risk of coronary heart disease. Try swapping full-fat milk for skimmed, steaming and grilling food, and eating lean meat.
7. Always read the food labels
Reading the labels on food can be a quick and easy way to find out if something is healthy for you.
8. Don’t drink too much
Drinking too much can increase your risk of developing an abnormal heart rhythm, high blood pressure and having a stroke.
9. Watch your portion sizes
Our research has shown portion sizes for certain foods in the UK have grown. Large portions can certainly contribute to over-eating and there is a tendency for us to over-estimate how much food we should be consuming. Knowing and controlling your portion sizes can help you maintain a healthy weight.
10. Watch your stress levels
Identifying situations which make you feel stressed, and how to avoid them, is a great place to start. In times of anxiety, exercise and eating a healthy diet can help to alleviate stress in a positive way.
For more information about the work of the BHF, visit bhf.org.uk/northernireland or facebook.com/bhfnorthernireland