The Life You Save May Be…

A special “extra” story this week. I’ve pulled it out separately because it doesn’t “really” fit in with True‘s theme. While it is a bit weird, it’s certainly not about someone doing something stupid.

“Remain Calm” Personified

Thurston County, Wash., 911 dispatcher Chris Scott got a routine emergency call: a woman saying her 6-month-old baby was choking, had stopped breathing, and was unconscious. Scott walked her through the procedure to clear the boy’s airway. At the end of the call, dispatch supervisor Tammy Clark told Scott, “You saved that boy’s life.” Scott, still calm, replied: “That was my son.” He had recognized the caller as his wife, and she recognized her husband’s voice, too. “I always dreaded getting a call like that. I didn’t know how I’d handle it,” Scott said later. “I guess I handled it pretty good.” Scott’s wife, Janna, describes him as “a pretty calm person.” (KING Seattle) …Practice makes perfect.

All the medics out there just smiled: they know the type, and they know what I mean by the tagline.

Training Kicks In

When faced with a real emergency, when one thinks they’d just be overwhelmed, what people really do is “revert to training” — what they practiced. Cops do it in shooting situations, for instance.

I remember when I was being trained in California when I was a sheriff’s deputy, and a lot of cops were still using revolvers. We were told the story of a police shootout, and investigators were a bit perplexed why the shot officer had carefully dumped the empty shells from his gun into his hand, and then put them in his pocket. Turns out, that’s what he did for years and years during practice on the shooting range, so he didn’t have to go pick up the shells later.

When it came to the real life-or-death shooting situation, he “reverted to his training” and wasted time taking care of the shells, rather than eject them onto the ground, which is faster. He paid for that fastidiousness with his life.

Using That to Advantage

That can be a benefit, too, if you do it right. It happened with me and Kit this summer, when we were faced with a patient in cardiac arrest (full story). EMTs drill a lot on what to do, and I’ve even proctored tests for new EMTs on it. We had a guy dead on the floor — with the potential to live. If you don’t know what to do, you panic. But we did know what to do, and simply “reverted to training” — we just did what had to be done, and had enough to do that neither one of us had time to panic.

The rep for the manufacturer of my defibrillator was in town recently, and when he heard the story he said he could download the data from my machine, so I handed it over. He showed me the time taken from when I turned it on until I shocked the patient back to life: 21 seconds — and that includes analysis time to ensure the patient was both in a heart condition that needed to be shocked, and one that would be improved by a shock (yes and yes, obviously), and the time to charge up to deliver that shock!

That speed isn’t because Kit and I are brilliant, it’s because in an emergency we knew what to do, and simply did what we’ve practiced many times. And that is why it’s important to not only get CPR training, but to get the refreshers when needed to reinforce that training. Maybe someday you’ll save the life of a loved one, like Chris Scott did. But you need the training first. Knowing what to do sure beats panic.

As for our patient, Kit and I were volunteering at a community health fair this month, and someone slapped me on the back. As it happened, I was telling a new EMT about the case right at that moment, and there he was, saying hi, when I turned around. It wasn’t just good to see him alive, but to see he’s living, too. So cool!

Dispatcher Update

I was at a meeting last night and the manager of our dispatch center was there. When I told her this story, she said she had heard about it, and wasn’t Chris Scott a new dispatcher? I researched it this morning: he’s not just new, he’s a trainee! But he’s used to paying attention to life and death training: he returned last fall from a one-year deployment to Iraq with the Marines.

- - -

This page is an example of This is True’s style of “Thought-Provoking Entertainment”. True is an email newsletter that uses “weird news” as a vehicle to explore the human condition in entertaining way. If that sounds good, click here to open a subscribe form.

To really support True, please sign up for a paid subscription to the much-expanded “Premium” edition:

One Year Upgrade


(More upgrade options here.)

Q: Why would I want to pay more than the regular rate?

A: To support the publication to help it thrive and stay online: this kind of support means less future need for price increases (and smaller increases when they do happen), which enables more people to upgrade. This option was requested by existing Premium subscribers.

21 Comments on “The Life You Save May Be…

  1. I truly believe in training, and refreshers. I was an EMT for a year, a very busy year, but I can’t say that I definitely, personally, saved someone’s life. We had patients who we transported, stabilizing on the way. But I was the bag-carrier (an EMT to paramedics).
    When people asked why I took the course, I always told everyone it was good training to have, you just never know when you need it.
    I needed it on my Dad’s birthday, it was many years since I was an EMT. He was choking on steak and I performed the Heimlich Maneuver. Didn’t even think about it, just did it. Worked like a charm.
    I’m sure there are many scenarios like this. And I thank my instructors and all trained professionals for everything they do!

    You likely saved your father’s life. Good job! -rc

  2. I also “reverted to training” when I was on a mission trip and a friend was choking on a piece of steak. I am not an EMT, but I am a teacher and always thought it was important to be trained in CPR.
    When my friend was trying to leave the room, I noticed her putting her hands to her throat. I walked straight through the questions and ended up performing the Heimlich maneuver because her airway was completely obstructed. We were both so grateful for the training!!

  3. Recently my husband suffered from a low blood pressure as a reaction to his new blood pressure medication. I reverted to my first aid training and calmly called 911, including remembering to turn on the front porch light and sequestering the dog. When the EMT asked me about my husband’s medications, I reached into the drawer where his meds are kept and presented the EMT with a printed list that I had just updated two weeks prior.
    Yes, training in emergency preparedness is good. For me, it started in Girl Scouts many decades ago, and I’ve tried to keep up with it ever since.

    Having an up-to-date list of medications that the medics can take with the patient to the hospital is very helpful in an emergency. -rc

  4. Thanks for the reminder to everyone of how important regular CPR training is. I’ve been getting recertified in CPR and AED every fall for years. I’d rather never need the training, but the repetition on Resusci-Annie makes it more likely I could use it if I had to.

    Taking the class over and over is a pain, but I guarantee you’ll be glad you went through it if you ever have to actually do it on a real person. -rc

  5. I work in a Fire 911 dispatch center. I am not a dispatcher, but I spend time in dispatch, observing the calltakers and dispatchers. On first view, you would think, “Our lives are in the hands of these goofballs?” However, when a situation arises where they must get information, either from or to a caller, from or to field personnel, these “goofballs” are the best in the world. I hope if I’m ever in a situation where my life depends on the work of a 911 dispatcher or one of our firefighters, that I get one of these “goofballs”. They are so well trained, and keep that training up-to-date, that I would be blessed to have them on my side.

  6. Fascinating story about the slain officer. It’s also the basis of those boring, repetitive katas, over and over and over again, in the martial arts. To build body memory so that when you actually need to defend yourself, you don’t have to think about what your proper move should be.
    Even though I’ve spent the last 15 years in the Tang Soo Do discipline, occasionally techniques from decades old Shotokan training will surface without thought. Body memory; revert to training.

  7. I took a CPR class a number of years ago because I wanted to know how to do it, not because of job requirements. I wanted to be a good citizen and help someone else, if necessary. It was a number of years later that I used the Heimlech maneuver on a coworker who was choking. It saved her, but I was in shock afterwards. If you’re a not trained professional, it is a scary thing to have to do. But I did it, because it needed to be done and I was the only one there who knew how.
    And in that first CPR class was the wife of a police officer. She told others in the class that she would never be able to perform CPR on her husband. We told her she would be the perfect person to help him if he had a heart attack at home. She said again that she could never do it, and nothing we said could change her feelings on this. I hope she never had to find out.

  8. I had a situation at work a year or so back when I heard a thud as someone hit the deck in an epileptic fit (although nobody knew he suffered from epilepsy). The trained first aider was at lunch and the guy had swallowed his tongue so was suffocating. The lifeguard training I had as a child came rushing back and I forced his mouth open and gave him a straight, clean airway and kept him in the recovery position until the ambulance arrived.
    During this time the first aider returned from lunch but declined getting involved and I was told I was lucky as I could have been sued for bruising the guys face when I forced his jaws open to help him breathe.
    It was surreal to me as essentially I saved the guys life when nobody else would get involved but then I’m getting reprimanded for not following procedure and only letting the first aider deal with situations like this – go figure – they’d probably prefer a body on their hands!

    Just to clarify, no one can “swallow” their tongue. But when unconscious and unable to maintain your own airway, your tongue will flop back and block the airway, and a good first aid class will show you what to do to help without having to force anyone’s mouth open (it’s all in proper positioning). I agree it’s stupid to whine about lawsuits, but that is a possibility in such cases, so think about getting some training so you can do it right and not have to worry about that. -rc

  9. I’d like to have you think about something: practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent. If you practice something incorrectly, you will perform it incorrectly. Bad practicing does not make for perfect performance.

    I did say that, but not as succinctly. -rc

  10. Even very old training can resurface. I was in my mother’s assisted living facility’s dining room when a resident, a near quadriplegic, began choking on a piece of meat. Though it had been years since my training, I approached the lady. The dining room attendant waved me off, but she was very light and slender and simply didn’t have the strength to lift the lady out of her power chair far enough to get the proper position. I had to force her aside; the rest was easy. That was four or five years ago, and the lady is still living!

  11. We never thought we’d need to use our CPR training either, but when our neighbors 2 and half year old foster child went down and wasn’t breathing, she called us before she dialed 911, because being from a different home country, she forgot whom to call in her panic, and knew my husband was a volunteer firefighter.
    My husband raced over as I dialed 911, then took off after him. Being far out in the country it took the volunteer ambulance about 25 minutes to get there.
    We kept the little guy alive and pink with mouth to mouth and CPR till they arrived. As you said, training takes over when you think you’ll be unable to do what you have to do.
    We were very sorry to learn later that he’d had a brain aneurysm that nothing anyone did could save him from, but he made it to the hospital before he “died”, and he didn’t die in front of his Mom, the worst part of the death of a child.

    You bought the family some time, even if he couldn’t be saved. Good job. -rc

  12. Practice and rehearsal are vital to prepare for adrenaline-soaked situations. Almost 40 years ago, in pre-CPR days, I pulled a blue guy from a lake and started mouth to mouth while the other lifeguards ran to get the ventilator. The ventilator just wheezed quickly back and forth – no air was getting in. The lifeguard brought the station wagon we had as an “ambulance” to get him to the local hospital, but we put him in head first, and we couldn’t keep the ventilator on him because it was big and had hoses that wouldn’t reach while we were putting him in. He did die, but I don’t think anything we could have done would have saved him – he was swimming out of bounds, a non-swimmer, and was very blue.
    In hindsight this is something we should have rehearsed completely, not just rescues and Artificial Respiration, but everything including driving to the hospital and admitting the patient.
    We also should have replayed it and discussed what could have been done better
    – like putting the patient in feet first,
    – like continuing mouth to mouth when the ventilator wasn’t helping.

  13. I was excited to see this story because I live close to where this guy works, and it was something of a big deal around here for a little while. I know this is what he trained for, and so I know he fell back on his automatic conditioning, but it was still so good to hear a story that ended up this way. Youall are reminding me that I need to get my CPR and emergency training up to date again; I needed it for awhile for something I was doing (volunteer work, I think) but I haven’t done it in awhile, and I repeated it so rarely that it would be good to try again. I’d especially like to repeat the infant part again, since when I first took it I didn’t have any babies around me and so took that part rather lightly, but now that has changed.

  14. Back in 1974, I did nursing training & graduated with distinctions. I have since worked in other areas as I stopped nursing in 1986 (due to injury). At this time there were no such thing as paramedics or EMTs here, & weren’t for many years.
    I ‘reverted to training’ many times over the years & found that even a minimal amount of training can be a great help until professionals can take over. I applaud ALL EMTs & paramedics. They are really great! I would suggest that EVERYONE get a basic knowledge of emergency techniques. You never know just when it will be helpful!

  15. I have a friend who ran the 911 center in our metro area and she told me a story about when she was on the phones one day. An elderly lady called in and then set down the phone. Her training kicked in and she just listened for a few seconds instead of demanding that the lady respond to her. She realized the woman was being raped and assaulted because the woman had the foresight to start talking to her assailant for 911’s benefit. She said, “Why are you raping me?” and proceeded to describe where she lived, what he was doing to her (in detail) as well has what he looked like while horrible things were being done to her. My friend had put the mute button on so the rapist didn’t hear her dispatching help. She listened the whole time until she heard police break in and apprehend the man. As soon as they did, the little old lady who was in her late 70s picked up the phone from where she had dropped it and thanked my friend for sending police so fast and for not giving her away. My friend said that the man was convicted and thanks to the lady’s quick thinking, she didn’t even have to testify. The recording did that for her. She saved her own life because he had planned to kill her when he was done. I say kudos not just to my friend and other cool thinking dispatchers, but to citizens who assist in their own rescues. Bravo!

  16. Training might help to help, but there was a very bad case here in Austria this week, where a woman died of a heart attack in a train, while other passengers just watched and did nothing, not even call for help.
    Didn’t find an English article about it, though.

  17. I know what you mean. I was an EMT for nine years and a BLS instructor with the American Heart Association. A couple years ago, my wife and I were at a Christmas party, and afterwards we were taking to one of the hostesses, and she all of a sudden went absolutely silent after eating a grape. I asked her if she could speak, and she shook her head “no” and grabbed my arm in a panic. I then just turned her around and did the Heimlich until her airway cleared. Her husband and the security people at the party didn’t realize what had happened until it was over. My wife remarked about how quietly and quickly I took care of the problem. I told her I’ve trained for this to the point where it was “muscle memory.”
    And yes, she’s still around and her husband and she are still grateful.

  18. Your comment about “reverting to training” struck a cord with me. I am an orthopaedic surgeon at the University of Minnesota who covers athletic events. Part of the requirement for that is BLS certification. I’m also ATLS certified.
    I recertified in December, and and once again wondered why I was doing pediatric BLS when I am covering adults. I understand the importance of being able to do these skills when a part of the medical community so that I can help in emergencies, but I truly never expected to need them.
    The second week in February, I snuck to my 4-year-old’s Valentine’s Day party and was at home with my wife. My 2.5-year-old son got ahold of a jawbreaker. When he stopped making noise, I flipped him and gave him the correct blows between the scapulae.
    He never lost consciousness, but I had just said to my wife, “Call 911” when I gave him a few more direct blows, and heard the happiest sound I’ve heard in my whole life — a jawbreaker hitting hardwood.
    The first person I called was the woman who did my recertification for me.
    Thanks for sharing your story (and the other one) with so many people. Perhaps it will help more people become certified.

    I think it’s great that you shared the story with your CPR teacher. Trust me: they never get tired of hearing the stories! -rc

  19. 30 years ago i was returning from a young peoples weekend, it was a dark night and I was driving on a country road. I was told one of the girls was choking. i pulled onto the verge, ran round the minibus and opened the doors. in the dim overhead light i could see the girl struggling to breathe and not succeeding. i dragged her to the back and out of the minibus, I leant her forward and hit her back hard, this was before the days of heimlich. I was never so thankful as when the boiled sweet she had been sucking flew the length of the minibus (I found it the next morning on clean up).
    When we got back i told her father what had happened, the following week he laughed as he got her to show me her back, 5 hand prints were still visible as an overlapping bruise. I suppose i should be thankful that it was not a litigious age in UK then.

  20. Panic will always be the result when you forget or don’t know what to do in an emergency situation. Quite frankly I deal much less with these cases since I’m an orthopedic surgeon, but there were a few cases where we’ve had almost similar situations. Fortunately, we have a well prepared staff before performing an operation.
    In any case I agree with what was stated above, it is absolutely 90% true that reverting back to training is the best thing to do when you don’t know what to do exactly. It very hard to think on your feet, especially in extreme situations like what happened to that 911 dispatcher, but thank God for his initiative he saved his son’s life.

  21. I’m surprised, with all the discussion so far, that nobody mentioned the Good Samaritan Law that exists in many locales (maybe someday all of them).
    The woman who was told that she could have been sued should remember that even without such laws, the courts would often apply some “good Samaritan” standards.
    In brief, a Good Samaritan law protects you from being sued when you act in an emergency when nobody else can or will act.
    But all potential good Samaritans need to remember not to go beyond their training. Don’t try to do a tracheotomy, for example, when the Heimlich maneuver would do.
    And if your locale does not have a good Samaritan law, urge your government representatives to create such a law.

Leave a Comment