A First Aid Course

Imagine that a loved-one, friend or workmate collapses, unable to breathe. What to do? Step one is calling an ambulance. But what next? The ambulance will take about eight minutes. Starved of oxygen after a heart attack, their brain will be irreversibly damaged in four to six minutes, and dead very soon after that. That eight minutes is going to drag.

How would you rather fill it? Running around in panicky circles? Standing slack-jawed? Or perhaps performing first aid techniques that will, according to Dr Michael Colquhoun (senior lecturer in pre hospital care at the medical school, Cardiff University, and ex-Chairman of the Resuscitation Council): “increase chances of survival immeasurably”?

Hearts are mostly restarted by defibrillation (being zapped by the electric shock device that TV doctors shout ‘Clear!’ before using). According to Colquhoun, if defibrillated immediately, and given appropriate care thereafter, you have a 49 percent chance of surviving cardiac arrest. The longer the wait before defibrillation, the more likely you are to die. However, survival rates are nearly tripled if CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), learnt on a first aid course, is applied while waiting for defibrillation to arrive.

You are unlikely to ever be in a situation when you’ll wish you knew CPR. But, equally, your house is very unlikely to burn down. You’re insured against the latter, so surely it makes sense to gird your loins for the former with a first aid course?

Not everyone thinks so. A poll of 20-40 year-old ABC types found that only 49 percent could perform CPR. Three quarters of those who couldn’t said they would go on a course if it was easily available, and a quarter said they had no desire to learn any first aid (the anti-Samaritans were all female, perhaps challenging the notion that women are more caring, or possibly reinforcing the idea that they are more honest).

The reasons given for not going on a course, other than the classic ‘Don’t have time’, were fear based – “I’m worried I’d be sued for getting it wrong”, “I’m worried I’d be sued for not helping when I was qualified to”, and “I’m worried that a course would make me confused”.

Well, you do have time. A relatively thorough course with St John Ambulance takes a day, and are available at evenings and weekends. If you really are so essential that you can’t take a day off, then you’re more likely to receive CPR after stress–related cardiac arrest than give it, for which you don’t need the course. The rest of us can spare a day, or at least three hours for an Emergency Life Support lesson.

If you’re worried about wasting a day’s holiday, or the fees (one day’s course in London is about £72, cheaper elsewhere), then you can probably persuade your company to afford you the time and cost. Every employer is obliged under Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981 to provide adequate first aid in the workplace. The Health and Safety Executive advises that companies employing more than 50 people have one trained first aider, with another first aider for every 100 employees. Even if your company reaches these targets, they will probably send you on a course if you ask (A course is easily available – see St John link).

And what of litigation danger? There’s very little. British law protects both the passer-by-on-the-other-side and the well-meaning botcher. You are under no legal obligation to help anybody in trouble, no matter how well trained you are. You might, if you’re astoundingly unlucky, be sued for applying first aid. However, the prosecution must prove you did something to worsen the condition, and, according to Colquhoun, this is nigh impossible when a casualty’s heart has already stopped.

Neither will the course confuse you. First Aid courses are designed for everyone, from village idiot up. CPR, for example, is easier than making a cup of tea, yet you’ll practice again and again until you’ve definitely got it. (Admittedly, one of the delegates on my course last week was utterly incapable, and you’d be in all sorts of bother if you had an accident anywhere near her. However, If you’re the type that reads the FT, you’ll be fine. If you’re the type that reads anything at all, in fact, you’ll be fine).

So you have time, legally you’re fine, and it’s not confusing. That’s the negatives dealt with. How about more reasons for taking a first aid course? It involves much more than CPR. It concretises vague medical notions, inspiring confidence during crises. We may have a rough idea of how to treat choking, burns, cuts, and so on, but it’s great to have these ideas firmed up (did you know that a burn should be put under cold running water for 10 minutes, for example?). The real benefit of a first aid course, CPR aside, is the confidence gained from having procedure to follow after an accident. If you’re alone with someone who cuts themselves badly, how much happier are you both going to be if you know what to do?

If you went on a course years ago, at school perhaps, it’s worth refreshing as you will have forgotten a lot, and you’ll find that some treatments have changed. Tourniquets are out, pressure is in. CPR is more dependent on chest compressions than mouth-to-mouth. There are methods to ensure you’re not infected. And you’re advised to take notes in case the recipient of your good deed sues you.

Since my course last week, I’ve been hoping that someone nearby will swallow a marble or have a fit. They haven’t yet, but when they do, I’ll know how to act. Giving CPR to a family member or friend would be horrible, of course, not just because of the mouth-to-mouth bit, but if I must stand at a loved-one’s graveside, I’d rather do it in the knowledge that I’d done all I could to save them. Is that confidence worth going on a first aid course for? That’s up to you.


First aid in the workplace regulations, www.hse.gov.uk

St John Ambulance courses, www.sja.org.uk, 08700 10 49 50

Heart health, www.bhf.org.uk

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