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Does “I Know CPR” Mean You Can Do CPR?

While I was browsing the produce section of my grocery store the other day, the sound of a panicked voice coming over the store’s loudspeaker made me jump. “Does anyone in the store know CPR? Anyone? CPR? We need you in baked goods!”

I froze. In theory, I know how to perform CPR — cardiopulmonary resuscitation. I took a two-hour course on it nearly 25 years ago. But I hadn’t given it much thought since then and I certainly hadn’t practiced what I learned.

My mind started whirling as I tried to remember the sequence of steps. They’d changed the rules a few years back — I knew that much — so I wouldn’t have to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But where exactly on the chest was I supposed to push? Should I form a fist and push down with my knuckles, or use the ball of my hand?

Suddenly, sirens wailed outside the store. The rescue squad had arrived. Too late, as I learned afterward, for this man, who was a victim of a sudden cardiac arrest. This type of heart attack strikes so fast that there usually aren’t any warning signs. You might see someone grasp his or her chest, collapse, twitch and gasp a few times, and then lie deathly still.

At that point, every minute counts. Enough oxygen remains in the person’s bloodstream to nourish the brain for several minutes — but a bystander has to circulate oxygenated blood to the brain and other organs by pushing down on the chest hard and fast, mimicking the heartbeat.

I’m a health writer. I knew this intellectually. But until those agonizing moments in the grocery store, I never really understood on a gut level just how important every minute is.

The first thing I did when I got home that day was look up an article on CPR published in the Harvard Heart Letter. Here’s the gist of what I learned about doing CPR for a sudden cardiac arrest:

  1. Call 911, or have someone else do it.
  2. Place both of your hands, one on top of the other, over the middle of the person’s chest.
  3. Press down hard enough to make the chest move inward about 1.5 to 2 inches.
  4. Relax to let the chest rebound.
  5. Repeat this press-and-relax motion quickly, almost twice a second if you can. (Try keeping time to the old Bee Gee’s song, “Stayin’ Alive.”)
  6. Don’t stop if the person seems to gasp or move! Keep pushing until help arrives.

Put one hand over the other and press hard in the middle of the chest

Final piece of advice: Be prepared! In an emergency, it’s hard to think straight — something I’ve learned the hard way. So take a refresher course or watch this video on CPR once in awhile so you’ll remember what to do should the need arise. (I’ve even started to practice the CPR “hand-and-arm moves” as part of my daily exercise regimen.)

Today, only about 5 percent of people survive a sudden cardiac arrest. Bystander CPR more than doubles an individual’s chances of surviving. Wouldn’t you want to “lend a hand” to help someone in cardiac distress? I know I would — and next time I hope to be better prepared.

– Ann MacDonald, Editor, Harvard Health Publications

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

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