Could You Save Your Friend’s Life?

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Your friend stops breathing. Do you freak out…or spring into action? Find out how to spot an emergency—and how to jump in and save a life.

You’re sitting in the cafeteria eating tacos when your friend starts coughing like crazy and grabbing at his throat. Your first instinct is to laugh, but then you realize he’s definitely not kidding. What you do next could make the difference between life and death. Just ask Cory Wohlenberg, 15, of St. James, NY, who saved his friend Yanni from choking last year. It was just a typical day at lunch, Cory says—until Yanni started desperately gasping for air. “I froze up for a second or two,” says Cory, “but then jumped up and ran to him to do the Heimlich maneuver.”

Although it’s hard to imagine, chances are you will encounter a medical emergency someday, whether it’s choking, a seizure, or a severe allergic reaction. You may find yourself in adult-free situations with friends who have medical issues, which means that how you react can make a huge difference. “Time is critical in emergencies, and knowing what to look for and do can help save a life,” says Dr. Kathleen Cowling, an emergency physician in Saginaw, MI.

Here, we’ve got the 411 on how to spring into action when you encounter a serious situation.

The Emergency: Choking

We’ve all messed around with a gag joke, but when food blocks your airways, it’s serious business. A chunk of hot dog can keep oxygen from getting to your lungs and brain, and you could sustain brain damage—or even die.

SPOT IT: Sometimes, when a person starts to choke, she feels kind of embarrassed and may leave the table or go in another room. Keep an eye on her and look for symptoms (like blue skin or lips, gasping, or weak coughing) and evidence of panic (such as clutching a nearby surface, like a table, or grabbing at her throat).

TAKE ACTION: First ask the person, “Are you choking?” If she can’t speak, you’ll need to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Stand behind her and wrap your arms around her waist, then lean her slightly forward. Make a fist with one hand and place the thumb side of the fist just above the navel, but below the breastbone. Grasp the fist with your other hand and make quick upward thrusts until the food is dislodged. If the person loses consciousness, lay her on the floor and call 911 immediately.

The Emergency: Asthma Attacks

About 1 in 10 kids suffer from asthma, and everyone’s triggers—what causes an attack—are different. Some people are set off by dust or mold, others by smoke or exercise.

SPOT IT: The symptoms of an asthma attack are wheezing, coughing, and difficulty breathing. Your friend should be able to tell you what’s happening, but if he can’t talk, can’t stop coughing, or is struggling to breathe, it’s a life-threatening situation.

TAKE ACTION: Get him away from the trigger, if possible, and help him take two puffs of his rescue inhaler. (If you know a friend has asthma, make sure you know where he keeps his inhaler!) Usually, the medication will work quickly to relieve symptoms, but if not—or if the inhaler isn’t available—call 911.

The Emergency: Diabetic Shock

Type 1 diabetes is a tricky disease to manage, and one mistake (like skipping a meal) can cause a diabetic person’s blood sugar to dip dangerously low. If not treated quickly, a person could become unconscious, lapse into a coma—or even die.

SPOT IT: Someone experiencing low blood sugar may seem confused, or complain of dizziness, headaches, hunger, or blurred vision. She may also get sweaty, seem shaky, or look weak and lethargic.

TAKE ACTION: If a friend starts to have symptoms of low blood sugar, help her get her glucose monitor. (It’s easy to use, wherever you are.) Have her test her levels while you call an adult who is familiar with her symptoms. If her blood sugar is low, give her a sugary food or drink immediately (soda or a hard candy, like Jolly Ranchers, are good choices). Then have your friend check her blood sugar again to make sure it’s in her target range. If she passes out, call 911 right away.

The Emergency: Severe Allergic Reactions

For kids with severe allergies, exposure to certain things, like a specific food, insect bites, or latex, can cause an instant, potentially life-threatening reaction called anaphylactic (an-un-fuh-LAK-tic) shock. So it’s important to treat these allergies very seriously.

SPOT IT: Your friend may feel itchy or nauseated. He may even throw up, appear weak and “floppy,” feel his throat closing off or his chest getting tight, and have trouble breathing.

TAKE ACTION: Kids who have severe allergies carry an Epi-Pen, which is a shot that reverses the allergic reaction. You should ask your friend to teach you how to use it in case you ever need to help him with it. After using the Epi-Pen, call 911 immediately.

I’m the kid whose life you could save.”

By Nikki Lee

But I don’t want to go ‘there’ just yet. Sure, I have an anaphylactic reaction to milk, eggs, peanuts, and all tree nuts, but my allergies don’t define who or what I am any more than wearing glasses or being adopted would define someone. I am a cheerleader. I go to parties. I go to sleepaway camp. I am an honors student. I have tons of friends and family that look out for me.

Still, it’s scary to live with multiple food allergies. I am on constant alert all day long to try to control my surroundings. At lunch, I think, “Peanut butter sandwich two seats down, and she is in your math class so don’t borrow anything fom her.” What? I know. It is impossible and unrealistic to control everything but there is no room for a mistake. None. One teeny, tiny morsel of milk, egg, peanut, or any tree nut will close my throat so that I cannot breathe—shut it so that I cannot ask for help or scream. But that’s how it goes, and all of this has become a way of life. I no longer need to remind myself to read a food label any more than you need to remember to brush your teeth. It is a part of me. And anything that is a part of me is special.

Check out Nikki’s blog at!

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