Can you do CPR? Do you know basic first-aid? Travel planning is a great time to get trained and certified in both. It’s about saving a life, yes — but also about knowing you did everything you could.
By Deborah Sanborn | Outpost Travel Health
(feature photo: Myndziak Video-iStock)
Many years ago, as Outpost’s travel-health editor, I wrote a column on the value of learning CPR — cardiopulmonary resuscitation — and how before heading out on any next trip, you should consider taking a course and getting certified — actually, not just in CPR, but in first-aid generally.
A recent personal event has brought that back home, and I’d thought I’d tell you about that, mostly to reiterate just how vital knowing CRP can prove — not just in maybe saving a life, but maybe, in a smaller way, saving yours too.
Last fall, my elderly father was raking the leaves on the front lawn of his home, on a stunningly beautiful Ontario autumn day. It was unseasonably warm, dry and sunny, and the colour of the leaves (which seemed to fall late last year) were spectacular hues of red, yellow and rust. My parents’ front lawn is a veritable forest of tall and robust trees that have grown sky high over the years, so that the lawn actually looked like a carpeted cacophony of colour.
Though he’s had heart disease for many years, and even an emergency heart-valve-clip operation during the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020 (he was so, so lucky; the staff at the Ottawa Heart Institute were so, so fantastic), he’s outlived his own father by several decades, and counts himself very lucky.
But that morning when he was raking the leaves (he swears he wasn’t overdoing it; my mother has fiercely warned him), something was off. And all we know, now almost a year later, since there are no witnesses to the event itself, is that by the time two passersby came upon him, he had dropped to the ground and was unconscious due to a serious “cardiac event.”
“Travel planning is a great time and opportunity to get formally trained in CPR and first-aid, maybe even get certified”
The passersby walk together a few times a week, and typically go up the street and not down in the direction of my parents’ house — a point of luck not lost on my father weeks later. As it so happened, one of the passersby, Shelly Burson, was trained in CPR, and sprung into action once she spotted my father lying on his lawn.
Her companion ran back to her own house (a few doors up the street) to tell and get her mother — as it so happened, her mother was a nurse! She and her daughter ran to my parents’ house, called 911, and stayed on the line with the operator until paramedics arrived. Until they did, Burson kept up the “stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive” CPR pumping rhythm on my dad.
When it comes to saving the life of a stranger, and CPR and travel, in my original article I told the story of how, many moons ago, our longtime senior contributor, Robert Brodey, also helped save a life when he was on assignment for Outpost in New Zealand. Here’s part of that story:
When it actually happened, Robert Brodey could hardly believe it. Sitting in a pizza joint in Queenstown, New Zealand, not a month after taking a CPR course in Canada, a man appeared to be having a heart attack. His first thought, as he saw the man’s head bob down to the table, was that he was vastly unqualified to help. But when it became clear complete chaos was erupting, Brodey flew into action. “I made an assessment that he wasn’t choking [the victim showed no signs of airway distress, like clutching his throat, before passing out] and that he was completely unresponsive.” Yet he barely remembers much else — he can’t recall if he checked for signs of breathing, a key CPR step, before starting chest compressions. “I literally blanked about what you’re supposed to do,” he says.
As I wrote in my original article, “blanking” is a typical reaction to when you’re actually called upon to do CPR as a non-medical professional, since the chances of putting your training into practice is low, if you’re lucky. And like with my dad, it is always a bit shocking when you encounter a situation when you actually have to use it.
But as I wrote years ago — which is still true today — one hugely compelling reason to learn CPR is that statistics show most heart attacks and cardiac arrests happen in the home (or maybe on the lawn of a home!), and to someone you love or know. And of course, that proved to be the case in my own family, with my dad.
I took a 2-day CPR and first-aid training course with the Canadian Red Cross — where we were taught how to use an AED, an automated external defibrillator — and got certified by the end of it. But I’ve been lax about keeping it up-to-date, and certification is only valid for about two years. If I had been with my dad last fall, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have “blanked out” too. Also, some of the CPR protocols have evolved and been revamped since I took my course, so I need to get retrained and recertified.
When a person is having a heart attack or a cardiac arrest (here is the American Heart Association’s explanation of these two heart events, and here’s how they define the difference between them), not just every minute but every second counts: it’s the heart’s job to pump oxygenated blood and other nutrients around the body and get it to your cells and vital organs, which need them to survive.
And it’s astounding how little time it takes without oxygen for your vital organs, especially your brain, to suffer permanent damage, or just to die. When you’re doing CPR, you’re manually pumping the heart and trying to keep blood circulating through the body — and especially to the brain.
In Canada, the Heart and Stroke Foundation is the leader in setting CPR guidelines, including, it states, for “all Canadian training organizations.” It’s also “the source of the official resuscitation science” in Canada. Its most up-to-date guidelines are used by all Canadian training organizations, and can be found in its 2020 Guidelines for CPR and Emergency Cardiovascular Care (ECC) and 2020 Guidelines for First Aid.
As I stressed in my original article — the reason I wrote it then and am repeating it now — travel planning is a great time (actually, a really, really great time) and opportunity to think about getting formally trained in CPR and first-aid, and maybe even getting certified.
I definitely recommend taking a course with a qualified organization or professional. Think of it as just part of your travel planning, your prioritizing and to-do list. There are lots of options these days to take one in your community — I recommend onsite and in-person, if you can; but ask about online courses, and even home-practice CPR kits.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Canadian Red Cross, St. John Ambulance, all have a wide range of options — you’ll likely get a chance to practise on an AED, which are now installed in so many public spaces across the country. Here’s a sampling: Basic First Aid & CPR, Emergency First Aid & CPR, Child Care First Aid & CPR, Wilderness & Remote First Aid (St. John Ambulance has 3 levels of Wilderness First Aid, and states it appeals especially to those living or working in more remote locations), and First Aid for Babysitters.
Most if not all will teach you how to use an AED — and as I said, with so many of these devices now in public places and available in your community, the life you save, as they say, may just be your father’s or your mother’s or your brother’s.
“Who wants to be in a situation where you have no starting point to handle a crisis?” Rob Brodey said to me after his unexpected experience all those years ago — he was just a happy little traveller, out and about in a foreign country, hardly expecting to be a hero. Which apart from the obvious — you can save a life — may be the best reason to get trained: so that like Rob, you’ll have a starting point and be (somewhat) prepared to spring into action should the moment arrive — which even then (as Rob stated), might still catch you by surprise.
Mostly it’s about knowing you did everything you could — and that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Finally from years ago, a good piece of advice that I mentioned still stands tall today: as a traveller, one of the first things you should find out when you arrive is the 911 equivalent — the local emergency number — of the destination you’re in. And if you ever encounter someone who is unresponsive, call that number first before you do anything!
What happened to Rob’s patient? He survived, even though Rob told me he considered the action he took to be imperfect. Which is another caveat to keep in mind — take action, don’t sit on the sideline thinking someone else is on it.
As for my father, he got an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) implanted (a pacemaker coupled with an automatic defibrillator), and is alive and kicking almost a year later. He still won’t promise my mother though, not to rake the leaves by himself. So we keep our eye on him.
After my dad recuperated, he and my mom invited our three neighbourhood heroes to their home to thank them. My parents had bought each one a tree-of-life pendant, so they’d always know how grateful my family was for their incredible actions that day, and for the spirit of neighbourly love they showed us. I wasn’t there, but reports say my dad was especially eloquent in expressing how grateful he was to all three for working to give him time yet with his family — he really does love his life! — and how he hopes they never forget what a profound thing it was they did.
And he also asked, if it was at all possible, that going forward, when they’re out and about in the neighbourhood, would they mind terribly heading down the street, not up? ♦
When it comes to CPR knowledge and training, always go to a primary, qualified source such as the Canadian Red Cross, Heart and Stroke Foundation or St. John Ambulance.
The information provided in the Outpost Travel Health Center are guidelines only. Always (always!) get individual medical advice from your doctor, a travel health doctor, or at a travel health clinic before travelling. In fact, we always advise your first point of planning for any trip should be booking an appointment with your family doctor or at a travel health clinic (which specialize in destination health and safety info, and requirements). Be advised too, that some destination-specific vaccines or preventatives (such as for malaria or traveller’s diarrhea) may require multiple doses, and thus require days/weeks/months of spacing between. So, when it comes to travel and health, start your planning sooner than later.