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Doctors say bystanders can do a lot to help someone who has stopped breathing

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

Damar Hamlin's remarkable recovery may not have been possible if things had gone differently in the moments after he collapsed. Following his medical rescue, the American Heart Association says it's seen a huge surge in page views on how to deliver hands-only CPR. And doctors say people who happen to be nearby can be tremendous help to someone who has collapsed and stopped breathing. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: As Damar Hamlin's teammates huddled around him after he collapsed, it was impossible to see what was happening. But it's now clear that medical staff were incredibly quick to respond. Dr. William Knight of the University of Cincinnati says emergency physicians were at his side in less than a minute.

WILLIAM KNIGHT: And that allowed for a very immediate resuscitation on the field. He was promptly resuscitated. It did require CPR and defibrillation.

AUBREY: Having doctors and equipment on-site helped immensely. But this is highly unusual. For most of the more than 350,000 people who go into cardiac arrest each year in the U.S., it's typically only a family member, co-worker or maybe even a stranger nearby to witness. So could they do what Damar Hamlin's doctors did to save a life? Dr. Rod Passman of Northwestern University says bystanders can absolutely make a difference.

ROD PASSMAN: This is a wake-up call and shows you how critical it is that people learn CPR. Intervention, even by a bystander, could save a life.

AUBREY: The American Heart Association estimates that CPR, especially if delivered immediately after cardiac arrest, can double or triple a person's chance of survival. But because bystanders can be intimidated and not know how to deliver mouth-to-mouth rescue breaths, the simpler approach is hands-only CPR. The basic guidance from the Heart Association is this - if you witness someone collapse suddenly and they're not breathing, first, call 911. Then use your hands to start pushing hard and fast in the center of the person's chest. One trick is to push to the beat of the disco song "Stayin' Alive." Dr. Passman says CPR is basically a temporary way to keep blood flowing.

PASSMAN: It is a way of supporting the organs when your heart pump is no longer working and you're no longer breathing to take in oxygen.

AUBREY: But in the case of cardiac arrest, CPR is not the only thing needed to save a life. CPR is basically a way to buy time until the heart can be defibrillated. Cardiac arrest is often caused by an electrical problem in the heart. Basically, an irregular heartbeat - or arrhythmia - develops when faulty electrical signals that tell the heart muscle to pump cause some chambers to fibrillate - or quiver. This prevents the heart from pumping blood properly. So the heart needs an electric shock delivered by a device called a defibrillator.

PASSMAN: Defibrillation basically stops the life-threatening, abnormal rhythm and allows the normal rhythm to resume.

AUBREY: This may sound complicated. But using an automated external defibrillator called AED is pretty simple. And if you look around, you can spot them in all sorts of places, from airports to shopping malls and in many offices. I recently participated in a CPR course where the instructor demoed an AED. And I was kind of surprised by how easy they are to use. During the class, we opened the device, which is kept in a box marked in red lettering, emergency defibrillator. And when it's turned on, an electronic voice started to talk to us, giving simple instructions to check for breathing and a pulse and how to place two pads on the person's bare chest.

PASSMAN: You put down these patches on the heart that receives the electrical activity. It automatically analyzes it. And if it decides that this is a life-threatening rhythm, it will charge and deliver a shock through those same patches.

AUBREY: If it's not a life-threatening rhythm, the device will not deliver a shock to the person's heart. AEDs are designed so that people can use them without any special training. But the key is to know where they are. The American Heart Association estimates only 50% of people can locate an AED at work.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LO-FI LUKE AND SUSHI'S "SUNRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Allison Aubrey
Allison Aubrey is a Washington-based correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She has reported extensively on the coronavirus pandemic since it began, providing near-daily coverage of new developments and effects. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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