It all started with those dreaded words: “Would anyone with medical experience please make themselves known to the cabin crew?”
The setting was a jumbo jet somewhere between Australia and east Asia. Adam Vincent, part-time stand-up comedian, was going on his honeymoon with his new wife, Nicky. Two rows ahead, air stewardesses were kneeling by a man, looking anxious. Adam was a registered nurse but had only qualified a month earlier. He had never actually worked as a nurse. Besides, he’d just woken up. Yet he had to do something.
“I said to them ‘I’m Adam and I’m a nurse’, which was kind of true,” he says, “but I’d bitten off more than I could chew.”
He found himself looking down at a man in his 70s, who was grasping at his chest. Adam told the hostesses he needed oxygen and the device for measuring blood pressure. “I didn’t even know what it was called,” he says.
The man’s wife was shaking a bottle of pills, but spoke no English, just Hebrew. What were these pills? Adam wasn’t sure but the drug’s name rang a bell. As far as he knew, it dilated the blood vessels, which could make the man pass out if his blood pressure was too low.
Meanwhile, his patient was showing more and more signs of pain. The hostesses went to get another nurse, but there wasn’t time to wait. Adam had to act. So he gave the man his drugs – “a pretty risky call”, as he admits.
At first, everything seemed OK. The man’s condition started to improve. Satisfied, Adam returned to his seat. “I said to Nicky, ‘We are so getting an upgrade’. For 20 minutes, nothing happened, and then I heard a blood-curdling scream. Straight away, I knew it was the man’s wife.
“I jumped up and went straight to him. He’d collapsed. He’d got no pulse and he was cold.”
Trying to master his own growing panic, Adam concentrated hard and noticed that the chest was slightly rising and there was, after all, a faint pulse. “I regret doing it, but I gave him a light slap on the face to wake him up,” says Adam. To his huge relief, the man came round. Adam set about trying to feed him water to increase his blood volume and pressure.
By now, the captain had arrived. They could land in Manila, he said.Adam’s instinct was to land, but the other, more experienced nurse judged that there was no need. So the plane continued and for three anxious hours, Adam remained with his patient – his first and most memorable patient – hoping desperately he would not deteriorate. Thankfully, he didn’t. By the time the plane landed, the man was able to walk off and, with a smile and a nod, was gone, leaving Adam feeling exhausted and anxious.
He still wonders what became of his memorable charge. “I lost a lot of sleep afterwards with worry,” he says. “I still do now.”
Six months on, Adam has built a comic routine around the incident, which he is performing at the Edinbugh Fetsival Fringe in Edinburgh, but he says: “It was actually really scary.”
He realises now how little he knew. Still, if required to, he would step forward again, because “there may not be anyone else who can help”.
Adam’s experience highlights how members of the public must sometimes step in and make life and death decisions when there are no doctors available. Yet, unlike Adam, people often lack the basic medical knowledge that could make the difference.
Jim Dornan, training manager at St Andrew’s First Aid, says: “When someone has had a cardiac arrest, the simplest things – like knowing CPR – can make the difference between life and death. It can take four minutes to choke to death and the average response time for an ambulance is eight minutes.
“Most people only think about doing first aid training after they have come across a scene, perhaps involving an elderly relative or, worse still, a child.
“First Aid is a social skill that everyone should have.”
Carolyn McCafferty, 20, a student nurse from East Kilbride, who volunteers with St Andrew’s First Aid, had to put her skills into action in her own home. Her father Stephen, 53, an electrical engineer, had been in hospital for a varicose vein operation and still had a bandaged leg. “We were arguing about something,” Carolyn says. “He turned away to go into the kitchen and in a split second, his bandage went from white to red, behind the knee.
“That was the end of the argument. I said ‘Sit down, your leg’s bleeding a little’ but didn’t tell him how badly. I put his leg up on a chair and put a tea towel on it to stop the bleeding while I called an ambulance.”
Carolyn’s swift action and calm attitude helped ensure the bleeding stopped before it became a serious problem.
“The thing about first aid is that you’re calm on the exterior but screaming inside,” she says. “But the training does help an awful lot.”
David Rankine, 30, runs MTC Media web development company in Dundee and is a seasoned first aider.
He needed all his reserves of experience when he witnessed a serious accident on the M90 near Rosyth one afternoon. A car heading south flipped on to its roof on the hard shoulder with five people inside, throwing one person onto the carriageway. David, heading north, immediately stopped the car on the hard shoulder, put on his high visibility vest, and, carrying his first aid equipment, crossed the carriageway to the scene.
As he arrived, one man was pulling himself out of the car and the man on the carriageway was hauling himself to the verge. Two other bystanders had stopped and David swung straight into action, telling them how to help. The three men and two women, all in their 20s, were all conscious, but were shocked, bleeding and complaining of neck and back pain. The first priority was to get them safely on to the verge and lying as flat as possible.
David triaged them, with the man who was flung out of the car showing the worst injuries, on his back and legs. With several complaining of back pain, he had to categorise them as potential spinal injuries and put all of them in neck braces – he was well enough prepared to have six with him. By the time the paramedics arrived, the situation was safe and calm.
He says: “Everyone should put themselves through at least basic first aid. Knowing CPR, how to stop bleeding, when to move someone and when not to, could make all the difference.”