Tragedy Begets Tragedy: Death and Bystander Inaction
San Francisco, CA – I don’t know why it is still a surprise, but it is. The article from the August 12, 2009, Santa Rosa Press Democrat begins tragically like this: “A 13-year-old Sonoma County boy died Tuesday after becoming trapped in a load of wheat as his father unloaded the grain from a trailer rig at a Petaluma feed plant.” Yesterday the articles were about the drowning of a 32-year-old man celebrating his birthday swimming in the Russian River and a lady returning from a day at River Rock Casino on an excursion bus suffering sudden cardiac arrest en route home on the freeway. At least in the latter case there was a better outcome as the bus driver pulled off the freeway, flagging down a CHP officer. The officer called for help and administered CPR until it arrived.
In the case of the swimmer, a beach full of bystanders waited for the sheriff’s deputy to arrive. The teenager was pulled free by his father and plant workers, transported to Petaluma Valley Hospital where the emergency room staff could not revive him. There is no way to tell if bystander intervention would have changed the unfortunate endings to these stories; but it most certainly could not have worsened the situation.
Bystanders are reticent to assist in such cases, erroneously believing they will “hurt” the victim because they do not have the confidence to administer CPR “the right way”. The fact is cardiac arrest victims are already dead; any intervention can only help. There is a window of three to five minutes in which action to restore a heart beat must occur. If bystanders act within that time frame, victim survival rate increases from less than five percent to greater than 75% percent, even if emergency aid is inexpertly administered. If no action is taken, the victim’s survival chances are virtually zero.
The only thing more certain than that tomorrow’s newspaper will carry a similar story is the fact that sooner or later each of us will be either a victim or a bystander in a sudden cardiac arrest situation. Have you been on the scene of a traffic accident? Witnessed a sports injury? Observed when a bicycle rider was thrown from his bike by a car passing too close or an uneven trail surface? Taken a strenuous vacation hike in the company of others clearly not used to such physical exercise? Played golf on a hot day with elderly companions? Watched while your child fell running or skateboarding ? These are the situations in which the chances of sudden cardiac arrest increase. They are also part of our every day lives.
“Since it is statistically likely that each of us will someday be a bystander during an emergency, it is incumbent upon us to learn what to do and to overcome our emotional reluctance to intervene,” says Micah Bongberg, President of Annuvia., a national CPR and First Aid Training organization. Not so plentiful are the news stories in which bystander intervention made a life and death difference for a family, but every emergency professional can tell of such occurrences. This is something each and every one of us is capable of doing.
There is a quiet confidence that comes from being prepared “just in case”. It is incumbent upon us as part of human kind to be able to act when the situation warrants. Wouldn’t we wish it for ourselves and our loved ones if we weren’t there when they most needed us?