When Rene Ismael Martinez collapsed while playing soccer last November 7th, his friend and teammate, Luis San Ramon, could think of just one thing: Rene’s young children and what they would do without their dad. The thought was grimly real; 44-year-old Rene had just suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. This notion would be enough to paralyze most people – freezing them like a driver at a red light. But not Luis, he managed to block out the background noise so he and another teammate could attempt to resuscitate Rene. The other man was Alejandro Higareda, the assistant director of operations at Marin Academy High School; trained in CPR and basic life support as a pre-requisite for his job. Alejandro knew to perform chest compressions fast and deep, sternum to backbone while keeping count in his head and giving direction to Luis (who was providing rescue breathing) and others. This powerful CPR, the force of which at first worried some onlookers, proved to be life-saving. Later described by one of the responding paramedics from Novato Fire as “simply awesome,” Alejandro’s forceful chest compressions kept blood circulating through Rene’s body for the five or so minutes it took help to arrive. Alejandro was just doing what he’d been trained to do – with the help and support of bystanders who urged him on – and he had no idea how profoundly important his actions were for Rene.
This past May 19th at the First Annual Marin EMS Survivors’ celebration, Rene Martinez walked onto the stage with Luis, Alejandro, and a crowd of paramedics, firefighters, doctors, nurses, and medical communications specialists (dispatchers and interpreters). It had been a little over six months since that day on the soccer field, and if we hadn’t just heard the story, no one in the audience would have guessed that Rene had so recently suffered a cardiac arrest. Through an interpreter, Rene tearfully thanked everyone on stage for saving his life.
Rene is one of the lucky ones. Nationwide, over 200,000 people a year suffer a cardiac arrest and of these only 2-8% survive long enough to be discharged from the hospital. Some of these never fully recover brain function. But Rene regained mental faculties by the time he reached the hospital. I know, because I was there that day and asked his doctor, Bob Stein, how it could be that his patient, who had just suffered a prolonged cardiac arrest, was now awake and talking to the staff? I don’t recall exactly what Dr. Stein replied, but I now know the explanation. Without a doubt, Rene’s remarkable recovery was due to the simply awesome CPR he received from Alejandro. This CPR kept his brain oxygenated while his heart was stalled (weakly fibrillating like a SonicCare toothbrush low on batteries.) Thus, after the Novato Fire paramedics used an electronic defibrillator to re-start his heart (re-charging the battery, if you will), Rene’s brain was able to quickly recover.
Rene Martinez was one of seventeen Marin residents who survived an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest last year. This number represents a 15% survival rate – much better (albeit with a small sample size) than national averages. But could it be better? What would it take to do better? A new hospital? Defibrillators in every home? No, nothing that drastic. All it would take is every citizen knowing how to do CPR (a simple, physical act that can be performed by a third-grader.) And now, it’s easier to learn CPR than ever – as new evidence and guidelines suggest that hands-only CPR (that is without rescue breaths) is at least, if not more, effective in adult patients with cardiac arrest than traditional CPR with mouth-to-mouth breaths.
I asked our new County Public Health Officer, Dr. Jason Eberhart-Phillips, about the importance of bystander training for CPR. “Heart attacks,” he wrote, “remain one of the leading causes of out-of-hospital death in Marin County. When heart attacks happen, bystanders who phone 911 and begin CPR can greatly increase the chances of survival. Effective chest compressions can move oxygen-rich blood to the heart and brain, keeping a victim alive until emergency responders arrive on the scene.”
So, wondering how you can be prepared to be a hero among us like Luis and Alejandro? Or how you can feel confident that your fellow citizens would save you like they did Rene Martinez? It’s simple, really. Rehearse. This is, as Malcolm Gladwell and many others have counseled, good advice for anyone, in any profession. Learn something, practice it, and when the time comes, memory will kick in. So, for those interested in learning proper CPR (this is yet one more thing that the movies do not get right), here are some options…
First, you can sign up for a basic life support course or encourage your employer to offer one (Alejandro is extremely appreciative that Marin Academy provided his training). Second, you can pay attention to where Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) are kept – you will notice them in gyms, at malls, and in airports. And yes, there is an app for this too. Finally, this Saturday you can come out to one of multiple sites in Marin and receive free (non-certified) training in hands-only CPR and AED use from local EMTs, paramedics, nurses, and doctors. The training will take less than ten minutes of your time and just might help you save someone’s life. As Alejandro Higareda will attest, this is both an opportunity and an honor, and one best informed by rehearsal.
Hands-Only CPR and AED Training. Presented by Marin County Emergency Medical Services. This Saturday, June 4th 10am-2pm. Locations include: Vista Point, Strawberry Village, Toby’s Feed Barn, The Village, Red Hill Shopping Center, Town Center, Northgate Mall, Mill Valley Depot Plaza and Vintage Oaks at Novato.
Interested in volunteering to help the trainers? Call Karrie Groves at 415-473-3214.