Monday Medical: How to save a life |

Monday Medical: How to save a life

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

It can happen when you least expect it: You’re taking a mellow hike with a friend or driving to work, and suddenly, someone nearby is in a life-threatening situation.

“Life just happens. Sometimes, you’re minding your own business, and you’re the first one on the scene or the only one available to help someone who’s injured,” said Dr. Nathan Anderson, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “You have to make a profound ethical decision — do you do something or walk away? And then, are you ready to do something?”

Anderson outlines what to do when you encounter a friend, family member or stranger who needs immediate medical help.

Be prepared

The most important step is one you should take before an emergency situation arises: Take a class on first aid and CPR.

“You have to prepare before the need arises,” Anderson said. “It’s very empowering to have that knowledge of what to do. You’re not going to come out a trauma specialist or an ER doc, but that’s not the expectation. The expectation is that you’re going to buy time for this person until someone with more training can take over.”

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Many health care providers, including YVMC, often offer classes that will give you hands-on experience and training.

“It’s not onerous to learn, and you don’t have to have a certain background or skill set — you just have to walk in with an open mind, a willingness to learn and a little bit of time, and you can be equipped to meet those needs.”

Look for classes on First Aid, CPR and how to work an AED, or automated external defibrillator.

“It’s easy, it’s accessible, it’s inexpensive, and it’s geared toward the lay person,” Anderson said. “What’s not to love?”

Step one

Secure the scene. If you find yourself in an emergency situation, first, make sure you’re safe, and second, make sure the victim is safe.

Be aware of your surroundings and don’t do anything that puts yourself in danger, whether you’re on a biking trail or a busy interstate. Once you’re sure you can act safely, help get the victim out of harm’s way if needed. Don’t move a victim who is not in harm’s way, as that may cause further complications or injury.

“Scene safety is the very first thing you assess,” Anderson said. “First and foremost, you want to ensure the safety of the responder and the victim.”

Step two

Call for help. Once you’re safe and the victim is safe, call 911 or ask someone else to call 911.

“You’re not Superman – you want to call 911 to get the cavalry coming,” Anderson said. “There’s a good chance the injured person may need more care than you can give.”

Step three

Assess and help. “Once you have the machinery going on in the background to take the job to completion, then you can approach the victim,” Anderson said.

Assess the victim by checking their “ABCD’s” — airway, breathing, circulation and neurologic disability. Even professionals use the acronym to be sure nothing important is missed.

“That’s what I do in the ER when a trauma patient rolls in,” Anderson said. “In a high-stress situation, it helps you structure your thinking and gives you something to hold onto.”

Through a first aid and CPR class, you’ll learn how to complete actions such as clearing an airway, doing CPR and addressing a head injury.

Remember your role

“Your job isn’t to cure this person,” Anderson said. “Your job is just to stabilize them until someone with more resources and training arrives.”

Never underestimate the importance of helping someone immediately at the scene.

“It’s the single most important job,” Anderson said. “If somebody’s got an obstructed airway, you could have a B-52 of surgeons coming in, but it means nothing if you don’t clear their airway. By doing that, you’ve just saved their life.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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