It started out just like any other day but quickly took a scary turn. I never imagined that anything like this would happen to me. An appointment with one of my favorite clients turned into an emergency. Until faced with such a predicament, you never know how you will react. Luckily, this time, I knew exactly what to do and I acted quickly. My emergency preparation skills and quick actions saved a life.
My client is a remarkable woman with an unforgettable presence who lives her life by her own rules. We met 30 years ago when she enrolled as a student in one of my programs. She always reminded me of the huge red sign that hung in my classroom as if shouting the words “Do it Now!” She would often come back to that message whenever she found herself delaying something.
Over the years I grew to know her well. She was in her early 90’s by now, still as vibrant as the day we met. She had a long celebrated career as a brilliant educator and worked as the head of a literacy program at a major university.
Raised by her father and four older sisters after her mother died right in front of her when she was three, her life was quite fascinating. She often regaled me with enchanting memories of her childhood growing up on the Lower East Side of New York and tales of her exciting life as a single woman. She was as sweet as she was sharp and as stern as she was forgiving. I became used to how she was quick to challenge you if your opinions we’re not rooted in fact. I think everyone needs a Margaret in their life. That is why I am so grateful that I knew exactly what to do the day she almost died.
The moment I stepped into her apartment I could tell something was terribly wrong. She was clutching her arm and admitted to being in excruciating pain. The pain was focused along her right arm but quickly moved up into her back and chest. She struggled to speak and the pain was increasing. I recognized the signs. She was having a heart attack. I needed to react, immediately! My first thought was to call 911 – but even in her state, she begged me not to call. She wanted to wait for her personal doctor who would be returning on Monday, 3 days later. There was no time to wait. My instincts kicked in. Years of experience working as an organizer had me prepared for just about anything. I did what I needed to, to get help and save her life.
Tips on What to Do in an Emergency
Knowing what to do in an emergency situation like this can mean the difference between life and death. It is unlikely that you will ever be in a similar situation, but it still could happen. Whether it happens to you or someone you know (as in my case), you want to be prepared. By being prepared you are calmer in emergencies and can take control of the situation. Here are just a few ideas on how you can respond like a pro in an emergency:
Call for help immediately! Grab your phone and call 911. Do this regardless of what anyone says. Margaret wanted me to wait. Don’t ever wait. She would have died had I not called 911. The EMS team quickly arrived and this saved her life. Follow your gut instincts and do what needs to be done. Rather be safe than sorry when it comes to an emergency. They confirmed that she was in the middle of having a heart attack. Getting professional help quickly is the most important thing when dealing with any kind of emergency.
Now an emergency won’t always take place in your house or someone else’s house, but if it does be prepared to leave as soon as EMS arrives. In my case, I made sure to collect all the necessary items that she would need. This included house keys, insurance card, and credit card, a small amount of cash, contact information, medicine or medicine list. I chose to leave her bag and any valuables at home and just take the necessities. I also included her small address book, in case there was anyone to contact, reading glasses and something to read. This was all prepared before the EMS team arrived and ensured that she had everything she needed with her.
Tend to the Emergency
When someone is having a medical emergency, you want to ensure that they are comfortable until help arrives. After calling 911, make sure that the person is seated (a half seated position with knees bent while the back and shoulders are supported is best for heart attacks). Do not let them walk around or move too much as this could cause more damage. Also, if possible don’t let them eat or drink anything until a medical practitioner arrives (there are some exceptions for prescribed medication). If the person is unconscious, check to see whether their airway is open and that they can breathe. Gently turn them onto their side if needed to keep their airway open. I made sure that she was comfortable and stable before preparing all her things. Since I was alone, I opened the front door, so that EMS could quickly gain access.
Recognize the Signs
If I had not known the signs of a heart attack, I may not have called 911. Since I was aware that her symptoms indicated a heart attack, I was able to respond accordingly. There will be different signs for various medical emergencies. Wounds and bleeding caused by accidents are quite common, but it is the medical conditions without obvious signs that are most dangerous. Two of the most fatal medical emergencies that require immediate attention are a heart attack and a stroke.
How to Recognize the Symptoms of a Heart Attack
- Pressure and tightness in the chest or pain in the arms.
- A squeezing or aching sensation in the chest or back.
- Nausea, indigestion or heartburn.
- Abdominal pain.
- Shortness of breath or labored breathing.
- Cold sweat.
- Light-headedness, sudden dizziness or fainting.
How to Recognize the Symptoms of a Stroke
Neurologists are able to save a stroke victim’s life and even completely reverse the effects of the stroke. However, this is only possible if treatment occurs within three hours from the time of the stroke. This means it’s imperative that a stroke is recognized immediately so that the person can get the care they need. Certain acronyms can be used to remember the signs. STR:
- Smile – ask the person to smile – if unable to smile normally it indicates a problem.
- Talk – ask the person to speak a simple sentence – incoherent speech indicates a stroke.
- Raise both arms – an inability to raise one of their arms means there is something wrong.
The NSA has another acronym to use when identifying a stroke. FAST:
- F – Facial weakness.
A – Armweakness.
- S – Speech difficulties.
- T – Time to call 911 as they need treatment immediately.
How to Respond to a Heart Attack or Stroke
If the person is in a serious condition and the expected EMS arrival time is lengthy, take specific actions to help them survive.
For a heart attack, get the person seated in a supported position with knees bent. Loosen any tight-fitting clothing that may affect breathing. Find out if the person is on any medication such as nitroglycerin for a heart condition. If they are, help them take it as it may improve survival. If not, get aspirin from the medicine cabinet to let them chew and swallow it. These are the only things that a person should ingest during a heart attack.
For a stroke, make sure the person is seated so that they don’t fall and hurt themselves. Take note of the time that first symptoms appeared as this will be important for treatment. Do not let the person fall asleep. They should not ingest any food, drinks or medication at all. Apply ice packs on the body, especially near the neck and head to slow down blood flow and possibly prevent some damage.
In both cases, CPR may need to be performed. This would only be done if the person is unconscious and stops breathing. CPR can keep them alive until help arrives. Taking a CPR class could help you feel even more prepared in a scenario like this.
Have a First Aid Kit
Although most people don’t carry emergency supplies with them, it never hurts to have a first aid kit on hand. Keep a first aid bag in the car or carry a small one in a handbag or backpack. Each household should definitely have a first aid kit that is regularly stocked with the basic medical emergency supplies. A first aid kit should have an emergency manual, sterile gauze pads, adhesive tape, bandages, a splint, antiseptic wipes, antibiotics, aspirin, ibuprofen, prescription medication, instant cold packs, gloves, CPR mouthpiece, and a blanket.
Besides calling for help, this is one of the most important tips. Emergencies can easily cause panic which leads to indecision. Pause. Take a few deep breaths. Calm yourself down before you respond. This may seem counterintuitive but you will be more helpful if you are calm and collected. By calmly taking action, you will reassure the person having the emergency and keep them relaxed as well. You are prepared and know what to do. Trust yourself.
This was just an average workday for me and an appointment I was looking forward to. You never know what situation you may find yourself in at any given time. Emergencies are unpredictable and can happen at any time. Never underestimate the value of being prepared. It may just help you save a life too!
You Just Never Know
I am grateful that this situation turned out well for my client, my best friend wasn’t as lucky. She died last year of a sudden heart attack, which could have been prevented. She displayed symptoms of a possible heart attack throughout the day. The signs were all there, but she ignored them. That night she passed away. She was my best friend of 52 years and her loss still crushes me every day. You just never know what could happen, so make sure to use this guide in the event of an emergency.
*In loving memory of Margaret.