Content warning: description of a pretty awful car accident
At 8.30am on a Wednesday morning 12 of us file into a 1980s red brick building. The training room is free of furniture except for a ring of plastic chairs on grey carpet facing a whiteboard with “Provide First Aid” written on it. The fluorescent lighting is harsh and the grey blinds block out the sunshine. We all take a seat and the room fills with the quiet sounds of a group of strangers who know they are all stuck together for a day: creaks as we shift in our chairs, bags being opened and closed, the hum of awkward small talk. There is a group of 5 rough and ready tradies in their worn jeans, iced coffees in hand. It is clear they work together regularly as they poke fun at each other and casually lean back in their chairs. There’s also a man in corporate office attire who has clearly done this about six times before judging by the combination of ease and boredom he has. There is a teacher, a Year 12 student, a uni student, and a couple of others who work in something to do with sales, and me.
The instructor, Karen, has bleach blonde hair with dark roots and wears an oversize St John t-shirt. She has a good nature about her and spends the day laughing jovially at our inept handling of our group members during the exercises. I can see her dominating backyard BBQs with her natural storytelling ability. She begins the day with an overview of what’s to come (CPR, tea break, assessment, lunch, cuts, burns, illnesses, snakebite, tea break, assessment) and we all dutifully follow along in the handbook we were given on our way in. She begins teaching us about CPR. Apparently the human brain can last 4 minutes without oxygen before death, but loses 10% capacity every minute it is starved, she explains. I begin to feel warm all over. Everyone nods with mild interest, but my heart begins to pump desperately and my palms start to sweat. Memories begin to flash back at me: speeding down a highway with my housemate driving. A man stepping in front of the car and the sickening crunch his head made against the windscreen. The smell of burnt rubber as my housemate slams on the breaks. Saying “we have to get out, we have to call an ambulance”, and her replying “I can’t get out, I can’t get out, I can’t do it”. Cutting my hand on broken glass as I reach down into my bag to get my phone. The glare of the headlights as cars whoosh past at huge speeds, seemingly not noticing the body slumped in the road. The man’s friend yelling wildly but the roaring in my ears drowning them out. He is drunk and staggering all over the road. The ambulance operator on the phone is asking me “is he breathing? Can you feel his chest moving up and down?” and I’m sobbing “I don’t know” because I am too afraid to touch the man. I am too afraid to go near him. Irrational thoughts are shooting across my brain. “He might hurt me.” “He’ll be angry at me and will hurt me” followed by a more rational but unhelpful thought, “he might be dead”. My intense relief when a woman rushes to his side and begins administering CPR: a nurse returning home after a shift at the nearby hospital. The sleepless nights for weeks afterward, lying in bed and trying to come to terms with the fact that I was too scared to help a man who might have been dying in front of me.
I try and steady my breathing and come back into the room. We are split into small groups now to practice DRSABCD (Danger, Response, Send for help, Airway, Breathing, CPR, Defibrillator) and I feel better with something active to do. My mind is racing because I had no expectation of these memories rushing back at me. It was 10 years ago and I didn’t know I remembered so many details of that night. I keep making awkward jokes in an attempt to offset my anxiety. I accidentally snap at the kindly teacher in my group when she keeps correcting me as I practice. One of the women in my group tells us of the time she had to perform the recovery position on her daughter, smacking her on the back as she wheezed and choked on a piece of lego. She shares this casually, as if it is not the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to her. As I compress the chest of a mannequin torso in time with the instructor’s cues my mind keeps wandering back to the accident. I’m trying to work out how long the man was unconscious for. Did he suffer brain damage from not breathing? Did he survive? Of course, we never found out afterwards what happened to him. He was carried away in an ambulance and we were sent off to live our lives. I try and focus on the feeling of my arms pumping up and down during the compressions. It’s surprisingly hard work. Karen tells us of people administering it for over 4 hours, and the patient surviving! Incredible. After administering shocks to the mannequins with a fake defibrillator we all pass our CPR assessments and break for lunch.
The second half of the day is a whirlwind of information about how to treat a variety of things like cuts, burns, chest pains, snakebite, and seizures. My partner for the practical bits is the uni student. He had ‘I woke up like this’ bouncy curls, stylish clothes and the casual arrogance of a 23 year old white guy. The varied topics we cover in the afternoon bring forth all kinds of horror stories from the group: a man who lost an eye when an octopus strap came loose on a trailer and smashed into his face; a woman who didn’t realise she had been bitten on the arse by a snake when peeing in the bush and dropped dead two hours later; and a man who came off his motorbike and looked up to see his arm bone poking through his skin. I become convinced all of these things will happen to me now. I am even convinced that the harmless looking spider I have adopted at work and called Phil is a mouse spider who is going to give a deadly bite to one of my colleagues at any moment despite having lived there for weeks. I’ve always had a penchant for the catastrophic.
We finish the day with our final assessment. The practical scenario I am given is that my casualty is having an asthma attack and as he runs over to me he trips and cuts his fingers off on something sharp. “I’ve got this in the bag” I think, both of these things have happened in real life to my husband. He was hospitalised recently for pneumonia which led to his asthma being badly aggravated, and when he was four he stuck his fingers in a moving bike chain losing the ends of two of them. I only answer two questions incorrectly in the theory exam (make sure you don’t collapse in front of me with chest pains) and left with a certificate of First Aid. As I stepped out of that drab room into the autumn sunlight I felt a little lighter. I can’t change what happened that night in the road. I can’t reach back through time and place my hands on the man’s chest. I can only hope that if I should ever find myself in a situation like that again that I can push my fears aside, take a breath, and begin.