Learning to save a life: My experience taking a CPR/AED training course

  • Maddie Fabian takes a CPR class at Cooley Dickinson. STAFF PHOTOS / CAROL LOLLIS

  • Suzanne West takes a CPR class at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. Behind her is James Smith.

  • Maddie Fabian takes a CPR class at Cooley Dickinson. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Maddie Fabian takes a CPR class at Cooley Dickinson. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 5/26/2023 4:16:49 PM
Modified: 5/26/2023 4:16:34 PM

Food is always going down the wrong pipe in my family. Maybe we eat too fast, maybe we have oddly shaped esophagi (is that even possible?), or maybe we simply need to chew more thoroughly. Regardless of the reason, it feels like someone is trying to catch a breath at least once a month after swallowing their food incorrectly at the dinner table.

I should say, there was only one instance where my mom needed to slap my sister on the back to dislodge a piece of food. Other than that, our mild choking problems are nothing more than an inconvenience. However, as one might expect, this constant choking has caused me to fear that one day, someone in my family may actually lose their ability to breathe, and I might not be able to save them.

Plus, according to the CDC, 70% of cardiac arrests happen at home, meaning an individual is most likely to use CPR to save a loved one. So, when I found out that I was going to take the “Heartsaver CPR/AED” training course at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, I was eager. When I told my mom, she even remarked, “Oh good, now you can save me if I’m choking!”

As a fan of The Office, when I think about CPR, I can’t help but think about the season five episode titled “Stress Relief,” wherein Michael hires an instructor to teach CPR at the office. The CPR training scene culminates in Dwight’s destruction of the dummy and use of its face as a mask. Not to my surprise, the CPR class at Cooley Dickinson is nothing like that, not to mention loads more educational.

Upon walking into the Dakin Conference Room on April 24, I was greeted by Mark Dion, a paramedic and professional development coordinator at the hospital, who was teaching the day’s class.

I was a half hour early, but time passed quickly as Dion filled me in on what to expect, shared some CPR pre-class tips, and parted other knowledge he’s gathered over the years as a CPR trainer. It was clear he’d shared this information quite a few times.

“There’s a peace of mind when you’ve got this knowledge,” said Dion about those who become CPR-certified.

Dion directed me to one of four tables arranged in a semi-circle around the conference room. Atop the folding table was a baby mannequin, a yellow pocket mask, a smaller mask, an automated external defibrillator (AED), and a “student workbook.” On the ground below the table rested a CPR dummy that resembled the upper half of a male body.

Today, four people including myself were signed up for the course. Typically, around six to eight people sign up for a given CPR course at the hospital, according to Marketing Communications Director Christina Trinchero.

“I'm always interested in why people are taking this class,” Dion said to the group as he kicked off the class at 8:30 a.m. “It’s always something different. Sometimes it’s personal, sometimes it’s for work, sometimes it’s a grandparent who wants to know how to help their grandchild.” He then asked everyone to share their name and why they decided to take the class.

“I’m taking this class because I want to know what to do if something happens, and basically know how to react,” said James Smith, one of the participants.

Suzanne West seconded Smith’s reasoning, adding, “If there’s a lifesaving situation I can potentially help in, I want to be able to try and help.”

Linda Riley, infection prevention manager at Cooley Dickinson, was taking the course as part of an Easthampton Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) course.

The rest of the class followed a formula of sorts: watch a video, listen to Dion’s more succinct explanation of the video content, and practice on the dummy. Going into the course, I was expecting to learn a lot, but while watching the videos I was surprised by how many misconceptions I had about CPR and AED usage.

For instance, prior to taking the class, I believed that you could hurt someone by performing CPR. But in reality, once someone is in cardiac arrest, they are already dead unless you act quickly by performing CPR and using an AED (if possible). In other words, any damage caused by CPR is better than not doing CPR at all. Furthermore, Good Samaritan laws protect those who aid people in danger.

I also learned that AEDs are designed to be used by anyone, including those who’ve never used them before. It is a myth that only healthcare professionals are qualified to use an AED. In fact, after practicing on the dummy, I found it much easier to use the AED than to perform CPR on its own, since the AED prompts the user to take certain actions, eliminating the need to remember what to do in times of stress. These actions include attaching the AED to the person’s chest, performing CPR at a steady 100-120 compressions per minute (the AED often has a built-in metronome), and sending a shock into the body if needed.

I will say, one thing The Office did get right about CPR is that “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees is, in fact, the correct tempo for chest compressions. The video narrator even added something along the lines of “and it has an appropriate theme too,” which is mildly morbid, but true.

And if you don’t know the classic “Stayin’ Alive,” the American Heart Association has an entire Spotify playlist titled “Don’t Drop the Beat” with 58 songs all between 100-120 beats per minute, including “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls, and “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash.

Beyond the video content, I learned the most from practicing on the mannequins. Near the dummy’s top right shoulder, a red or green light signaled whether the chest compressions were satisfactory or not. Even with a mannequin, I was hesitant to push too hard, for fear I might “hurt” it, but it wasn’t until I exerted a substantial amount of force that I got the light to turn green. Similarly, when using the pocket mask to give breaths to the dummy, it took more breath than I expected to get the chest to rise.

Performing CPR, even in a calm and low-stakes environment, was certainly a lot harder than it looked, but after a few rounds of practice, I felt relatively confident in my ability to step in and help someone in need of lifesaving CPR and AED use.

Later that week, I am not making this up when I say that my roommate started choking on a Perfect bar to the point where his face started turning purple. I tried to remain calm and thought back to what I’d learned in the class. My roommate was responsive, so CPR was not needed, but he was not coughing or speaking, meaning the Heimlich maneuver was required.

I rushed over to the kitchen, but by the time I got there, he was coughing. According to what I’d learned, if someone is coughing, there is no need to intervene other than to encourage the person to keep coughing, so that’s what I did. While the circumstances could have been much more dire, I felt confident in my newfound skills to do the right thing. And even if the situation had escalated, I think I would have been able to successfully step in and save my roommate, thanks to the training I received at Cooley Dickinson Hospital.


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