“My Teammates Saved My Life”
Quick! If a friend’s heart stopped beating, would you know what to do? There isn’t much room for hesitation—these teens are living proof.
It was a still-chilly spring day in High Point, North Carolina. As the girls on the Wesleyan Christian Academy softball team stood in line waiting for their next turn at bat during practice, they were bundled up, stamping their feet and standing close together to stay warm. Eighth-grader Taylor Bisbee shivered a little as she watched her teammate Paris White, also 13, bunt during a drill. The two didn’t know each other well—Taylor had just moved to the area from California a month or so before. But that was about to change.
After Paris rounded the bases, she jogged back into line behind Taylor and a few other girls. Then, minutes later, Taylor heard a commotion behind her. She turned and saw Paris on the ground.
“She’d slid down the back of the girl in front of her, so some people thought she was joking,” Taylor remembers. “But when her eyes rolled back and she started shaking, I knew it was an emergency.”
“Does anyone know CPR?!” the coach called out. All eighth-graders at Wesleyan are required to learn the life-saving technique, which uses chest compressions to keep oxygenated blood flowing to vital organs like the brain. Taylor had just finished her training the day before. Still, she hesitated.
“I thought someone else might know it better than me,” she remembers. “But then I thought, ‘Wait, I got this.’ And I went over and began compressions.”
Seeing Taylor step in sparked others to take action. Taylor Travers, a high school senior, called 911.
Two more students ran to get the school nurse, who brought one of the school’s defibrillators. (CPR can perform the heart’s work, but it can’t restart it; for that, you need an automated external defibrillator, or AED—an electronic device that can shock the heart back into rhythm.)
Two others helped direct the ambulance to the field. And another group simply knelt in the dugout and prayed.
“It was scary, because I knew it was the difference between life and death,” says Taylor. But luck stayed with them: An ambulance arrived just four minutes after being called, and Paris’s heartbeat returned.
At the hospital later, Paris’s family was told she’d suffered a sudden cardiac arrest: an electrical malfunction that causes the heart to stop beating. Many people confuse this with a heart attack, but the two are different. Only the actions of her quick-thinking teammates had jolted Paris back to life.
“I know I was really lucky,” Paris says now. “Most people don’t survive this. My team saved my life.”
Experts say Paris is right: More than 320,000 sudden cardiac arrests happen outside of hospitals each year, and the single best bet for survival is having a bystander step in and administer CPR—the quicker the better. If that person is trained and begins immediately, the chances of survival triple.
Imagine it happens to you: You’re at the store, or crossing the parking lot at the movies, or, more typically, just relaxing in the backyard with friends and family. Out of nowhere, you see someone drop to the ground. The person is not breathing and doesn’t come to. What do you do? Do you shake them? Yell for a doctor? Wait to be told what to do?
Studies show that most of us hesitate, just like Taylor did in the beginning. “Up to 70 percent of bystanders won’t step in,” says Dr. Dianne Atkins, an Iowa-based pediatric cardiologist and spokesperson for the American Heart Association.
“Either they don’t know or don’t think they know CPR, or they’re afraid they’ll ‘do it wrong’ and hurt the person,” she says.
Here’s the thing, though: When it comes to cardiac arrest, experts say neither one of those really matters.
“Someone in cardiac arrest is medically dead,” says Mary Newman, co-founder of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation. “You can’t hurt a dead person.” (Neither can you get into legal trouble for making a mistake while trying to help; Good Samaritan laws around the country protect you.)
What’s more, doing CPR well is not as important as doing it quickly. A person’s chance of survival drops about 10 percent for every minute that goes by without CPR until—after about 10 minutes—most can’t be revived by an AED anymore. Since the average ambulance takes 10 minutes to arrive, bystanders are the only hope many victims have.
In fact, in a study published last year, patients who’d been worked on by ordinary bystanders actually had better outcomes than those who got “expert” treatment from medical personnel.
“Speed is that important,” says Carolina Hansen, who studies resuscitation at North Carolina’s Duke Clinical Research Institute.
Experts understand that taking someone’s life in your hands (almost literally) is an intimidating idea. So in the half-century since CPR was developed, they’ve tried to make it as easy as possible.
The first step is still, as always, calling 911—that way, even if your mind has gone completely blank, or you’ve never been taught CPR in the first place, emergency services can stay on the line and guide you.
Chances are, they’ll tell you to focus on compression—giving fast, forceful pushes to the chest—rather than stopping for breaths like you’ve seen TV doctors do.
“In most cases, [cardiac arrest] happens so quickly that the person still has oxygen in their lungs,” explains Newman. “This way you can get it to their brain.”
They’ll also likely tell you to send for the nearest AED. These machines are virtually foolproof: They can detect whether the person’s heart is beating and will administer a shock only if it’s needed.
“People who take classes in using an AED usually say they are really easy to use,” says Hansen.
If a person gets CPR and is defibrillated within two minutes, chances of survival shoot up to 60 to 70 percent. The one problem: Many people are still not sure exactly how to deploy this life-saving equipment. The devices may be hidden away in a nurse’s office or labeled “for emergency respondents only.”
If that’s the case in your school, talk to someone about making AEDs more plentiful, available, and well-publicized.
“I’ve been in a school where the AED was locked in a closet and the only person who had the key was the person who went into cardiac arrest,” says Hansen. “In that case, what’s the point?”
A Lifesaving Movement
So if anyone can save a life, why bother getting trained? Studies show that taking one CPR class—or even just watching an instructional video online—gives people the confidence they need to jump in.
That’s why there is now a huge movement to make training mandatory in high schools. At the end of 2015, 27 states had passed laws making a 30-minute CPR class part of the curriculum; a few more were set to vote on similar measures. “CPR is a life skill, like brushing your teeth,” says Newman. “Everyone should know how to do it.”
Taylor Bisbee agrees: “Cardiac arrest happens every single day,” she says. “If every high school student had to get trained in CPR, there would be so many people who could help. Imagine how many lives we could save!”
Photos: Ricardo Castillo (William); Courtesy of Family (Abby, Daniel)