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CPR Doesn’t Work on Dead People

July 2, 2009
Photo by: Michael Ferrari -

Photo by: Michael Ferrari -

Time stood still as I stood motionless in the stranger’s apartment.  It was beautifully furnished.  There was a baby grand piano across the room with a silver tea set carefully placed on an expensive table cloth.  Exquisite furniture, expensive carpets, and decoration only found in the most expensive homes.  Yet, here on the floor, lay an elderly woman in her night clothes.  She looked very peaceful.

I was a young, eager, and very inexperienced EMT. Not yet a paramedic, that would come several years into the future.  Now, on this quiet Sunday morning in SW Portland, I stood in a luxury, retirement, high rise building in the 16th floor suite of a very unconscious, peaceful elderly woman.  My senses sought desperately to keep up with the scene unfolding around me, but my body remained motionless.

My partner on the ambulance that day was one of the first paramedics in the country, yet he was only a few years older than me.  His certification number was three – as in the third in the nation.  Bob carried himself with the nonchalance of the streetwise, the coolness of the experienced, and the cynicism of someone who has seen the darkest of the human soul.  I wasn’t his regular partner, in fact, I normally worked transporting people in wheelchairs.  This was just a fill-in shift – to prepare me for my future as a street medic.

As I knelt down next to this very serene lady, I realized there was no one else in the apartment.  Who called us?  Who let us in?  Why was she lying on the floor?  I was still dazed and sleepy from being awoken from a sound sleep.  The whole experience was so surreal.  Driving South on Broadway, through downtown Portland, at 6:00am on a Sunday morning, with red lights flashing against empty storefronts – but in absolute stillness and quiet.  And now, standing in this wealthy woman’s home – my mind couldn’t keep up.

“Maybe we should do some chest compressions?”  Bob calmly asked as he prepared to assess her EKG with the LifePak heart monitor.

I was jolted into an embarrassed reality. I had taken my first CPR class when I was 15 years old.  I’d run my first emergency call that same year.  I’d run dozens of calls on a volunteer ambulance in rural, eastern Washington – and yet, here I sat, trying to understand, but without understanding.  This woman had no pulse.  How did I miss that?  In my inexperienced hesitancy, I was taking my clues from my partner.

I placed my hands on her sternum. I had never performed CPR on a real person before.  Her skin was loose, and cold.  Her chest was so much more compliant than the CPR mannequins.  As I pushed down, her abdomen rose up.  With each compression, her stomach would bounce up.  One-1000, two-1000, three-1000 – Bob dismissed my meager attempts as he checked her rhythm with the paddles.  Asystole – no electrical activity.  She was clearly DOA.  He began putting equipment back in the kits.

I don’t remember much after that moment. It was a transcendent experience.  I had touched death, yet here I was alive to ponder it.  I know we didn’t transport her to the hospital, that would be the work of the funeral home.  I know we didn’t linger at the apartment, it was time for shift change.  I’m not sure who stayed with the body until the funeral home arrived.

But I do remember the piano and the tea set – and how worthless all that stuff was to the serene lady on the floor.

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