Getting right to the heart of simple skills that save lives
The British Heart Foundation believes every child in Northern Ireland should be taught the basic skills to deal with an emergency such as a heart attack or |choking. Health Correspondent Claire Harrison joined a training session and learned how to potentially save a life.
Northern Ireland’s heart disease statistics are nothing short of frightening. Our second biggest killer, heart disease accounted for some 17% of all deaths last year, claiming almost 2,500 lives.
Someone in the UK dies from a heart attack every six minutes. More than two-thirds of cardiac arrests (when the heart stops completely) happen outside hospital with 84% of those happening at home and 9% in a public place. A third of those casualties will die before they reach hospital.
With those stark facts in mind, the chances of any one of us having to deal with someone having a heart attack should not be ignored.
The British Heart Foundation (BHF) says that recognising the signs of a heart attack and calling an ambulance are vital first steps to helping a casualty — and if everyone learned the basics of emergency life support, many more lives could be saved.
It was with this in mind that the charity started its Heartstart UK programme, an initiative which has been running in Northern Ireland for almost 10 years, which teaches people what to do in a life-threatening situation — “simple skills that save lives”.
Stephanie Leckey, community resuscitation co-ordinator with BHF Northern Ireland, said: “Recognising a heart attack and calling an ambulance are the vital first steps, but if everyone learned the basics of emergency life support (ELS), then many more lives could be saved. BHF Northern Ireland strongly believes that every child in Northern Ireland should receive ELS training.”
I joined a group of teachers from schools across the South Eastern Education and Library Board area at its headquarters in Dundonald for a BHF Heartstart training session to learn key skills such as knowing how to spot the signs of a heart attack, what to do when someone is having one and how to cope with choking or serious bleeding.
The teachers were not just there to learn what to do in an emergency — but also to give them the knowledge and practical skills to go back to school and teach their pupils ELS.
So far, 368 schools across Northern Ireland have signed up to Heartstart UK, 841 instructors have been trained and they, in turn, have trained over 19,000 pupils. The age at which children can learn the skills of ELS depends on their learning and physical ability, but the charity says most youngsters are capable of learning ELS skills from 10 or 11 years old.
Cardiac nurses Patrick Gallagher, Niall McKenna, Billy Joan Rice and Patricia Glover took the session, bringing us through the theory and practice of good ELS.
They taught us the many small steps that can be taken in an emergency — and the potentially huge difference they could make to someone’s chances of recovery.
The training focused on the first two links of what is called the ‘chain of survival’.
The first link is early recognition followed by a call for help (to prevent cardiac arrest) and the second is early CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) in the event of arrest, to buy time.
We learned that the warning signs of someone having a heart attack are usually a severe pain in the centre of the chest that often feels like a heaviness or tightness and may spread to the arms, throat and neck, jaw, back or abdomen.
To illustrate this, we were shown the well-known BHF advertisement showing a man with a belt tightening around his chest.
The class was also told to look out for the casualty being pale and sweaty, clammy, feeling nauseous or short of breath, in which case an ambulance should be called.
While waiting for help to arrive, the casualty should be placed in a W position, sitting down with their knees drawn towards their chest, and reassured that help is on the way.
If the casualty falls unconscious but is still breathing, they should be placed in the recovery position. But in the event they stop breathing, they should be turned onto their back and CPR started immediately with 30 chest compressions.
We were given life-like models on which to learn CPR, fitted with fully inflating lungs. Niall taught me to place the heel of one hand in the centre of the model’s chest and, with the heel of the other on top, interlock my fingers and begin depressing and releasing the breastbone, at a rate of almost two per second.
The push must go between four and five centimetres into the chest and I was surprised at the strength needed to do this.
After 30 compressions, we were taught to turn to the casualty’s mouth and give them two ‘rescue breaths’ or mouth-to-mouth. My first few attempts on the model failed and we all agreed he would have been in big trouble had this been a real situation.
Niall taught me to check that I was placing my mouth correctly around the casualty’s, that his head was tilted back correctly and that there were no obstructions.
My second attempt worked and it was big relief to feel the model’s chest rise and fall. After two breaths, I returned to 30 compressions and was told that in a real-life situation I should continue this until either the casualty shows signs of life, or until professional help arrives to carry out defibrillation, or until I |became too exhausted to continue.
What I did not know about CPR is that the main point of it is not to restart the heart, in fact this is unlikely. Its purpose is to maintain a flow of oxygenated blood to the brain and the heart, boosting the window of opportunity for successful resuscitation without permanent brain damage. Defibrillation and advanced life support are usually needed to restart the heart.
As Patrick Gallagher put it: “Good CPR is the difference between someone who will be out of hospital in three weeks, and someone who will never be able to leave their hospital bed.”
At the end of the day we were all put to the test to see how we would cope in an emergency situation.
Stephanie Leckey was my assessor and gave me the scenario that I was in Parliament Buildings when I came across an MLA lying unconscious in a corridor. Off I went — checking for vital signs and setting about CPR — until I had earned my ELS certificate.
According to BHF statistics, the probability of survival reduces by 7-10% every minute without CPR following sudden cardiac arrest. Overall, bystander CPR increases survival two to three times.
It’s impossible to know how difficult it would be to deal with such a real-life situation and, of course, I sincerely hope I never come across one.
But it’s good to know that if it ever does happen, I have some basic skills that might just be able to help someone — and could even save their life.