TERRY PRONE: Time to sing the praises of those who come to the aid of others

Heimlich’s passing, this week, serves as a reminder of the importance of rescuers, writes Terry Prone

THE story of the year could have been a tragedy but wasn’t. It happened at a wedding in Rossnowlagh in Co Donegal.

Once all the formal stuff was completed, those assembled got down to the fun stuff, with a band called the Rockhill Ramblers playing. You may not have heard of the Rockhill Ramblers up to this point, but from now on, anybody planning an event involving music should have them on speed dial. Not because of the music, although they may be great musicians. But the Rockhill Ramblers have other things going for them, as they proved at this particular wedding.

All was going merry as a marriage bell until the uncle of the bride collapsed where he stood, or, to be perfectly accurate about it, collapsed where he danced. Alan Johnston was waltzing with his daughter when it happened. From the bandstand, this was observed by the Rockhill Ramblers. Who, to be fair, were in a great position, not just to see any collapses, but to assess their significance.

“We play a lot of weddings and we’ve seen people fall over drunk,” one of the musicians said later. “But we knew this wasn’t like that.”

Straightaway, they realised just how different was this collapse. This wasn’t a situation where continuing to play the music was the right course of action. This was a situation where the members of the band needed to trash their musical instruments, rip off their evening suits, reveal their Superman drawers and snap into rescue mode.

This they did with a will. Maybe they didn’t strip or trash, but fair dues to them, they deployed skills other than musical capability. One of them was a nurse, another a qualified emergency paramedic. The two of them got the collapsed man into the right position and started to do CPR on him with a will, yelling at another band member to bring the defibrillator.

Now, that’s an instruction you hope is never issued to you. How many of us, going into a celebratory event, check the location of the nearest defibrillator? Roughly the same number of air travellers who obey the cabin staff instructions to locate the emergency exit closest to where they sit. Almost none, in truth.

Whether he knew its location before the call to action or didn’t, the musician who was not, at that moment, occupied in pumping the uncle’s chest, found the defibrillator, brought it back and the more active first aiders shocked the unconscious man, who promptly surfaced into consciousness. At that point, the priority was to get him to hospital, so the ambulance arrived and he was loaded into it. Most defibrillated wedding guests, around about then, would concentrate in fierce silence on breathing in and out and that would be enough for them. Not this particular wedding guest, who found the energy to call out to the musicians, instructing them that they should continue to play, because with luck, he’d be back. To continue the waltz with his daughter, we assume.

The band, accordingly, played on and the happiness of the wedding continued. Now, it would be excessive to suggest that all bands should be equipped to rescue members of the audience in the event of any one of them taking a bad turn, but you have to hand it to the Rockhill Ramblers for giving us the best example of multi-tasking in 2016. And hammering home that everybody needs to be trained in basic first aid techniques — including the Heimlich manoeuvre.

The Heimlich manoeuvre is a brilliantly simple but forceful two-handed grab performed by a rescuer on someone who is choking at the time. Performing it on someone who is NOT choking at the time comes under the heading grievous bodily harm. Plus, it can, as a former colleague of mine found, deliver gruesome bodily harm to innocent bystanders. The colleague was on a plane eating Skittles when disaster struck. An explanatory note may be appropriate for readers too upmarket to know what Skittles are. They are sweets of searing acidity and matching sweetness, in primary colours of penetrating vividness. They come in the form of small balls amenable to a good slow suck or a faster chew, depending on your personality.

This man had presented his mouth with a fair handful of Skittles, and was addressing them at his seat when one or more of them went the wrong way, colourfully corking his airway and turning him blue from oxygen-deprivation.

At the start of the incident, he went for a subtle cough or two, which had damn all effect on the clogged airway. Then he got more obvious. Then panic arrived and, freeing himself from his seatbelt, he tottered into the aisle, clutching his throat with one hand and desperately pointing to it with another, which earned him a number of responses, ranging from the baffled to the avoidant.

Suddenly, from behind him, came two strong arms, the hands of which joined just below his sternum and gave the most punishing yank. Skittles everywhere. Passengers for several rows ended up looking as if they had developed neon-coloured smallpox. But the choking man was able to breathe.

Which he did until the stars receded from his eyes and he could begin to apologise to the people he had sprayed. He turned around to thank the passenger who had Heimliched him with such brutal efficiency, but the man was gone. He had done the deed, seen it work, and buzzed off back to anonymity and his own seat.

The curious thing about the Heimlich manoeuvre is that the man who invented it, Dr Henry Heimlich, never used it throughout his long career. He responded to the experience of other people by developing the technique, but never got to personally employ it on a choking victim. Until, in his 90s, he moved into an old people’s home.

In April of this year, when he was 96, a fellow resident in that old people’s home choked on food. The 87-year-old woman gave Heimlich his eponymous big break. He delivered like a pro, in the process saving a life directly, to add to the lives he had earlier vicariously saved. Afterwards, he told the BBC that he wasn’t sure, at the outset of the crisis, if he would do it right, despite having demonstrated to others for decades how it worked, but he did.

Heimlich’s passing, this week, serves as a reminder of the importance of the rescuers. The fire service people. The ambulance crews. The gardaí. The countless nurses and doctors who pull in when they see a car crash, or volunteer when the call goes out on a plane. The people who instinctively check on where the defibrillator is located so they can put it to work if something bad happens. The people who take time off from work to get closer to a sawn-off dummy than anybody really wants to in order to practice mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Lads like the Rockhill Ramblers, who do so much more at weddings than simply sing.


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