These days, pretty much everyone knows what you should do if someone collapses and stops breathing.
The signature CPR position (kneeling over someone and pushing rhythmically on their chest) is recognised across the world. It has featured in countless movies and TV medical dramas over the years.
It works, too. Giving simple chest compressions can keep casualties alive for those precious few minutes before professional help arrives.
Like most genius ideas, you can’t imagine it ever wasn’t there – but just a few decades ago, things were very different.
Up until the late 1950s, no cardiac arrest casualty would be treated at the scene of their collapse.
Instead, they’d be trundled off in the back of an ambulance to hospital, wasting precious minutes.
Once there, doctors would actually slit open the patient’s chest – like a scene from some schlock-horror movie – and start manually massaging the heart.
Unsurprisingly, survival rates weren’t great.
Then in the late 1950s, a young doctor working in Baltimore – James Jude – started looking into the problem.
Being a perceptive chap, Dr Jude recognised that quick treatment was essential in such cases. (Every minute lost decreases a casualty’s chances of recovery.)
And then came his eureka moment: realising that pressure applied rhythmically with the heel of the hand to the centre of the chest could jump-start the heart.
In 1963, CPR (it stands for cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) was formally endorsed by the American Heart Association. Within a few years, it had caught on across the world.
Since then, the doctor’s inspired discovery has saved thousands of lives every year.
Ever a modest man, Dr Jude often played down the importance of his role in developing the breakthrough medical technique.
He once told an interviewer: “It was just serendipity – being in the right place at the right time and working on something for which there was an obvious need. Things like that happen in medicine all the time.”
Too humble, by half.
In truth, coming up with a life-saving treatment that becomes a global phenomenon doesn’t really happen all that often.
But thanks to this unassuming man, countless thousands of people – parents, brothers, sisters, children, friends – have survived a traumatic event and gone on to live long and happy lives.
How to help a cardiac arrest casualty
1. Check breathing by tilting their head backwards and looking and feeling for breaths.
2. Call 999 as soon as possible, or get someone else to do it.
3. Push firmly downwards in the middle of the chest and then release.
4. Push at a regular rate until help arrives.
Heart attack versus cardiac arrest – would you know the difference?