Keep Your Skills Sharp

Early in the evening on May 10, I received a text message that brought on both chills and an incredible sense of pride at the same time: “Just performed the Heimlich on my mom (choked on carrot in the kitchen). She was on the verge of passing out … so scary!”

The text was from my friend David Ginsburg, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California (USC). We’ve worked together for the past four years teaching a scientific diving course for the Environmental Studies Program at USC.

Dave and his family were at his mother’s home in Malibu, Calif., preparing to have dinner when his mother began choking on a piece of carrot. As Dave described it, he was in the living room and heard her start to cough in the kitchen. He then heard her gasping for air and went to the kitchen to find her holding onto the edge of the sink and beginning to turn blue. He couldn’t believe this was actually happening and wondered if he needed to intervene or if she would be able to expel the object by herself. He worried that he might break her ribs. Her house is in a fairly remote area, and he thought that if she passed out, help might not arrive in time to save her.

He put his doubts aside and performed three or four abdominal thrusts. He didn’t see the carrot come out, but after the last thrust she was breathing again.

I texted Dave back and asked how she was; he replied, “A little bruised from me pumping my fist into her diaphragm, but happy and laughing now.” Because he had the proper training and was prepared in advance, an event that could have devastated his family was being laughed about.

Just a few months prior to the incident, Dave had attended a DAN Basic Life Support: CPR and First Aid course combined with a DAN Emergency Oxygen for Scuba Diving Injuries course that I was instructing at USC. These courses are provided annually for our scientific diving students. Dave had attended to renew his certifications and keep his status current for the scientific diving program.

I occasionally hear complaints from colleagues and students about having to attend renewal courses for CPR or first-aid training. I always ask when they last practiced the skills taught in the program, and the typical response is “the last time I took the course.”

I hope we, as divers, would not undertake a dive that required us to use skills we hadn’t practiced in a couple of years. Most of us would plan at least one skill-refresher dive in advance to make sure we could safely handle the dive. The same applies to our emergency-preparedness skills — they get rusty if we don’t use them.

For an instructor teaching basic life support courses, one of the most rewarding things that can occur is having a former student tell you about saving a life. It’s only happened to me twice in 35 years of teaching CPR. The first was in the late 1970s: A student who had taken my course just a month prior visited our office visibly shaking and on the verge of tears. He told us that his two-week-old son had gone into cardiac arrest, and he had been able to revive him with CPR. That moment will stay with me forever. Dave’s story had a similarly chilling impact.

Many students who take CPR and first-aid courses are doing so to fulfill a requirement, often for their job or another activity that requires the certification. At the start of all of my classes I ask my students when they think they might use the skills they are about to learn. I get a lot of different answers; most are based on their frame of reference for taking the class. For the dive-oriented courses, they often serve their fellow divers. I make sure they understand at the start of the class that the most likely group to benefit from their skills is their own family.

I’m in the process of setting up a DAN Instructor course for Dave and some others. He already has a great story to tell his future students about the value of keeping their skills up to date.

When’s the last time you practiced your emergency skills?

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2013