First aid saved my husband’s life

Lesley Dobson / 27 November 2018

I learned first aid because of my job, and thank goodness I did – my husband would have died without it, says Joanna Mitchell.

It was a normal Sunday morning, and we were probably the healthiest we’d ever been. We were doing ‘dry January’ and were exercising regularly. We were in the kitchen – I said I was going to have a shower, and my husband Grahame, who was making bread, said, ‘Actually, I don’t feel very well.’

I took one look at him and he just didn’t look right. I said, ‘I’ll take you to the Minor Injuries Unit.’ Next second he was on the floor. It was as quick as that. I work in the health and social care sector and it was pretty obvious to me that he was in full cardiac arrest.

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One of our daughters was in the living room, so I shouted to her to call an ambulance. It sounds quite matter of fact, but it wasn’t, and my daughter was hysterical because at that time her dad was clinically dead on our kitchen floor.

We both had the same first instinct – to run. But I sent her to the front of the house, to wait for the ambulance, and I started doing Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR). The mother in me wanted to protect my daughter, but I knew I had to help my husband.

It was a really horrible situation, but the lady on the phone at the emergency services was wonderful – we owe everything to her. It’s hard work doing CPR, especially when you’re emotionally involved with the person. After about eight minutes of CPR, I felt I just couldn’t keep doing it any more, but she kept me going. It was the most terrifying time of my life.

After 11 minutes, the first paramedics turned up. They literally lifted me off the floor and took over with the defibrillator. We had six paramedics in the house, then the air ambulance crew arrived, and then the police came.

Grahame’s heart attack happened at 11.50am; by 2pm he was in the air ambulance. It took that long to stabilise him. The ambulance crew had put Grahame into an induced coma on the kitchen floor and kept him in the coma throughout the transfer to the hospital. He was flown to the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, while my daughter and I went in a police car, with the blue light going all the way.

Once the police knew what the situation was, we were taken to the family room in the hospital and told that he was still alive. I phoned Grahame’s family around the country, and I think almost everyone in the family was at the hospital by about 4pm.

Altogether, Grahame had another four heart attacks while he was in the hospital – five in total – and he had a chest infection. He did stabilise thankfully, and they brought him out of the induced coma after six days. When I walked in he was sitting up in bed wide awake, and we both burst into tears. From that day on, he carried on recovering.

If I hadn’t been taught CPR, I would be widowed now. That time I spent giving Grahame CPR was the most terrifying 11 minutes of my life, but if I hadn’t done it we would have lost him.

Grahame was 48 and a healthy non-smoker, with no history of heart problems. To this day there’s no damage to his heart, and we don’t know why it happened. We do know it was a cardiovasospasm – which can affect top athletes whose hearts suddenly stop. It happens when the main artery goes into spasm.

He doesn’t really remember much of it although, subconsciously, he heard everything – all the machines beeping and the alarms, so walking into a shop that had a door alarm on it would trigger something in his brain, and he’d wonder why that sound was bothering him.

Grahame has had a couple more heart attacks since, but we can deal with those now. He has had an internal defibrillator fitted, and if his heart rate increases, this brings it back down.

Unfortunately, his medication left him with ulcerative colitis, which damaged his immune system, and compromised his heart again. He was eventually put on immunosuppressant tablets, and it’s now more than three years since his initial heart attack, and he’s had no more problems. And that’s amazing.

First-aid training – and where to find out about it

Joanna has worked in community care for a long time and has had first-aid training for years. As part of this training, she attends annual first-aid courses, although she had never had to attempt resuscitation before her husband had his heart attack.

Recent research carried out for World First Aid Day found that the British public lack confidence at the thought of going to help someone in a first-aid emergency, with only half of all adults in the UK feeling confident about helping in such a situation. The research found that only 4% of people know first-aid skills and would be able to help someone.

You can learn life-saving first aid with the British Red Cross. Go to firstaid to find out more.

What to do in an emergency How to help someone in the three most life-threatening scenarios

If someone is bleeding heavily

You should put pressure on the wound, using whatever material is available, to stop or slow the bleeding. Call 999 as soon as you can.

And keep pressure on the wound until help arrives.

If someone is choking

Hit them firmly on their back, between their shoulder blades, to help to dislodge whatever is causing the blockage.

Call 999 immediately if this doesn’t work.

If someone is unresponsive and not breathing

Check whether they are breathing by tilting their head back and looking and feeling for breaths.

Give chest compressions: put the heel of one hand on the centre of their chest and push down by 5cm (2in) firmly with your other hand on top, then release. Keep pushing at a regular rate (100 to 120 a minute) until help comes. If they are not breathing, call 999 immediately or ask someone else to do so if you don’t have a phone to hand.

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