Her tires skidded in the gravel as she came to a quick stop in front of the lodge. As I pulled into the lodge in the white van sporting the lodge’s logo, she wasn’t sure whether to run inside or come to me. The look on her face gave away two things; something is very wrong and she needs immediate help. My first thought is “there’s been a bear attack.” When she clutched me with a cold firm hand and told me “My husband has had a heart attack!” A feeling of relief temporarily set in. Reality is a bear attack would probably have left her husband with better odds.
I was aware of my senses the whole time but my actions were programmed. From then on it was just a matter of riding the autopilot.
The screen door clacked loudly as it hit the wall at 180° and before it could slam to a close I had crossed the kitchen and was getting our receptionist on the phone with the ambulance.
The sound of the pills of aspirin I snatched from the lodge first aid kit was rattling in my pocket like maracas while I pulled myself up the staircase, taking steps by the bound. Before I knew it I was back in the van with an automatic emergency defibrillator and the trauma bag used by the winter heli-skiing operation sitting in the passenger seat.
Calmness is not a trait for which I lack but on autopilot the gas pedal has no bottom. With the heavy van’s motor pushing four thousand rotations per minute, I was off to find this man.
A series of clicks and clacks have me parked on the side of the highway, the engine put to rest, hazard lights clicking and the incessant beeping from the unbuckled passenger quelled. 2 km east of the lodge on the side of the highway lies the man in the gravel. I radio in our location, and am assured the ambulance is on it’s way but as I run from the white van with the trauma bag, AED and radio in my hands, I’m wearing my lodge uniform. I must look very much like a paramedic myself. Every part of my inner self doesn’t want to step into this, but the autopilot disagrees. Here we go.
My brain computes the information and plugs it into formulas acquired in my extensive first aid courses taken for ski guiding. Blue lips and nails, lips covered in vomit, pale skin, opened-unseeing eyes, all terrible signs. Computer’s assessment doesn’t look good. He may even have died before my arrival. The human in me rejects the assessment. A man is there already giving him cardiopulmonary resuscitation. This is good. The wife, who had made her way back immediately, is giving him breaths. Not good. I stop her for risk of blowing vomit into his lungs.
Next my fingers are working apart the AED’s anodes, one on the right pectoral muscle, and another on the ribs under the left armpit. From there the machine takes over relieving me of any difficult decisions. "Please stand back. Analysing. Shock advised."
The light above the ‘shock’ button starts blinking as the machine begins to charge. It quickly becomes a solid light and I press the button. As the surge pulses through his heart, the nerves react to the electricity and a spasm convulses through his body for a short second.
There is no breath of life, there is no reaction. The machine puts it simply: “Continue CPR”
As CPR continued it was time to delegate tasks. Finding a pulse, a jaw thrust to open the airway and opening the trauma bag. I was using every trick in the bag. A suction pump was inserted deep in his throat to try and remove any vomit clogging the airway, next an oxygen mask with high flow.
Twice more the AED told us “Shock Advised.” Twice more I pressed the red button, hoping all the while that my face doesn’t come across as pale as this man’s. On the third shock the man vomited and it seemed the life might have come back to him but it was just a reflex. After rolling him and clearing his airway we waited for the ambulance, continuously administering CPR and oxygen.
His wife tells me that when the heart attack hit on their daily walk, the man fell and simply uttered “Oh shit.” It was over forty-five minutes after he uttered those words that we finally heard the hopeful sound of sirens. When the volunteer Bella Coola paramedics arrived there wasn’t much left to do but swap gear and load him up. Once on the trolley I stood back, taking a beautiful grey dog belonging to one of the bystanders. "Does he know what's going on? Does he smell the stress and fear in the air?" Calm with a husky/wolf look to him I scratched his neck under the long white fur. It was a moment of inner quiet with the relief of it being over starting to sink in. It didn’t last. I was grabbed and asked to continue helping on the ambulance ride to town.
As we sped along the windy road, my calm demeanor betrayed a slight queasiness while I bent his rib cage repeatedly and beads of hot sweat were dripping onto his cold clammy skin. The odd smell of canned tuna was emanating from the vomit.
In total, from the “Oh, shit” to the reception at the hospital, two and half hours went by. Anyone who isn’t a doctor knows that there isn’t much hope after such a long time without a natural heartbeat or breath to feed the brain. The machine had stopped advising shocks hours ago and I had never found a real pulse. It’s a sad story to have tried so hard and fail. In the end, despite the outcome, I’ve received many deep thank you’s. His wife especially was very grateful. As she continues on, she will at least have the peace of mind knowing that we did everything we could. I eliminated “what-if’s” that could have haunted her for a long time. Fortunately, the experience left me quite calm as usual and unshaken. I may not be capable of bringing back the dead but I was able to do my best for the living. In the end I’m happy to have been there, to offer a helping hand.
If you're curious about the photo and it's representation, click here.