Better safe than sorry
By Karen Ann Monsy
Friday, July 06, 2012

If you encountered a medical situation, would you know what to do? Equipping yourself with basic first aid skills means you can cut straight to the rescue — because, at times, it could be a matter of life and death

Medical emergencies can crop up anytime, anywhere — and without warning too. Yet, most people’s attitude towards acquiring basic first aid knowledge can be described as almost cavalier. According to UK-based charity St John Ambulance, up to 150,000 people are dying in the country every year in situations where first aid could have made all the difference. Their survey revealed a disturbing trend: a quarter of those polled (24%) would rather wait for an ambulance to arrive or hope that a passer-by who comes along on cue knows first aid.

Closer home, the results are no less alarming. A YouGov survey released last year revealed that 33 per cent respondents surveyed in the UAE could not cite 998 as the correct number for an ambulance, and 24 per cent did not know the number for Dubai Police.

It’s precisely for reasons like these that the first aid training unit of the CEDARS Jebel Ali International Hospital focuses most of their courses on “laypeople”, says training supervisor and senior life support instructor Anna Marie Sy-Boco. “Basic first aid is the care given to victims while waiting for professional help to arrive. If an individual collapses or stops breathing, you have just 4-6 minutes in which to save his or her life.”

There may be some locations in Dubai that may prove difficult for an ambulance to find immediately, says the former Red Cross volunteer. “If the brain does not receive oxygenated blood within six minutes, the person will die. In such cases, if a first aider is on site to help, the chances of survival become greater. The best part is: you don’t have to have a medical background to become a first aider either.”

Sitting through one of the courses in session, it was easy to see why. Using resources such as video demonstrations, mannequins and guide books, participants took turns practising various first aid techniques that included treating deep cuts, making splints for broken bones and administering CPR. The eight-hour course was then wrapped up with a test, followed by the awarding of certificates valid for two years from the American Heart Association.

Equally important is knowing who — and how — to call for help in cases of emergencies. Senior clinical educator Beverley Swinerd, who has been offering first aid training as part of Welcare Hospital’s education department for the last seven years, says, “Everyone’s scared that they’ll be held accountable for trying to help somebody [if it goes wrong].” A couple of years ago, a child was knocked down in Mirdif and passers-by failed to act quicker; Beverley recalls the Dubai Police “putting out a public appeal urging people to assist if somebody is hurt, assuring that people would not be held liable for their actions. Rather, they’d be held accountable for their non-action.”

Beverley’s team has been working with schools managed by GEMS in the UAE for the last two years, training pretty much everyone — teachers, helpers, drivers, conductors — who comes into contact with students. Having a fair knowledge of first aid is critical especially in situations where nurses aren’t around — such as when teachers travel with students on field trips. She believes the next step will be to offer the same training to students as well (though whether as part of the curriculum or as optional classes remains to be seen).

The most common emergency cases Beverley has observed in schools involve cuts, bruises, sprains, asthma attacks and allergic reactions. She puts the level of first aid awareness at about “50 per cent for the teachers” and much lesser for students. “This will change with time, of course,” she states.

Even the comfortable environs of the home can be a high-risk area. According to British expat Tracy Fountain, a bit of carelessness on the part of caregivers — boiling hot water on stoves, running baths, unlocked windows — can quickly turn it into a disaster zone.

Four years ago, when she returned to work after the birth of her first child, Tracy couldn’t find a suitable first aid training course relevant to the UAE. She researched the issue of child injuries in the region and the findings led her to establish Back to Basics, a training venture that educates both parents and house helps — and also translates first aid books into five languages, including Sri Lankan and Tagalog.

“Most working parents rely on domestic helps to supervise small children,” Tracy explains. “It is therefore the minimum responsibility of every parent to ensure that whoever

is supervising their child is actually trained to do so… [at home] children are not supervised as closely as they’d be in, say, a shopping mall,” she says. “But young children will climb, be attracted to water, fire, shiny objects and medication that look like sweets, and use their mouths as a laboratory wherever they are.”

The 40-year-old mum of two says Back to Basics has received great feedback from parents (80 per cent Emiratis), and there have been cases where parents have successfully performed CPR on their infants in Abu Dhabi and two nannies have prevented kids they were supervising from choking. Although their education to the community is a key component to reducing child injuries, Tracy adds, “changes in legislation and data collection are also required to have the maximum impact.”

Acquiring first aid skills may come in handy at a time you least expect it to. Your timely intervention may even be the very difference between life and death in emergency situations. Besides, it’s always reassuring to know that help is “at hand” rather than “on the way”. -


Tracy Fountain offers some tips to prevent ‘home zone’ accidents related to:

Choking: Cut eatables into small pieces. Keep small toys and coins out of kids’ reach.

Burns: Maintain a kids-free zone in the kitchen while cooking and keep pans on the back burner. Test temperature of the water in the bathtub before bathing.

Drowning: Supervision at all times is key. Plan pool parties with supervision commitments from parents involved and by issuing safety instructions to children. Gates to the pool should be kept locked at all other times.



You can pick up readymade first aid kits from local pharmacies to keep on hand at home. However, if you wish to put one together, the American Heart Association recommends the following essentials:

  • List of local emergency numbers, including those for the police, fire department, poison control centre and medics
  • Gauze pad
  • Adhesive bandage and tape
  • Antiseptic wipe
  • Compress bandage
  • Burns ointment
  • CPR pocket mask
  • Cold compress
  • Eyewash
  • Gloves
  • Triangular bandage (to splint an arm/ leg)
  • First aid quick reference guide


Anna Marie Sy-Boco offers tips on how to identify key emergency situations and basic responses you can follow till help arrives:


Common signs: Victim will complain of pain in his chest “as though someone is sitting on it”. Pain may also spread to the arm.

What to do: Make the person sit down. Lying down will cause breathing difficulties. Do not let him/ her walk. Loosen tight clothing. If the person has medication on hand, assist him/her in taking it. Do not give the victim medication of your own or try to administer CPR.

CARDIAC ARREST: Sometimes a heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest, if not treated immediately.

Common signs: The victim may become unconscious and you may not be able to detect chest movement, indicating the victim has stopped breathing.

What to do: Perform CPR, giving 30 chest compressions followed by two rescue breaths, after checking that the airway is clear. Make sure the chest rises when you give breath, which should take about a second each. Repeat process till help or an Automated External Defibrillator arrives, or if you see signs of life.


Common signs: The victim grabs his throat with both hands, and may or may not be able to speak.

What to do: In case of partial choking, i.e. if he/she can speak, ask him/her to cough vigorously to create pressure and dislodge the object. If he cannot speak, perform the Heimlich manoeuvre by placing your fist over the belly button and giving quick inward and upward thrusts till the object comes out. If he collapses or stops breathing before the object is removed, perform CPR.


Common signs: Severe headache, sweating, slurred speech and numbness.

What to do: Perform three simple tests: ask them to smile (it may not be the best time to ask but still), raise their hands and say a simple sentence. If they fail these tests, make the person lie down, loosen tight clothing and wait with him/ her till help arrives.



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