First Aid: From Witchdoctors & Religious Knights to Modern Doctors

Medical Author: Barbara K. Hecht, PhD.
Medical Editor: Dennis Lee, MD

Stop ten people in the street and ask them, "What is first aid?" Their responses might range from "It's putting on a Band-Aid" or "It's giving CPR" or "It's calling 911." All of these answers would be appropriate because first aid encompasses the entire gamut of help and medical assistance that someone gives -- not only to an injured person -- but to a person who is sick.

First aid applies to a broad range of medical situations. First aid is not just a set of skills. It also involves the ability to determine the appropriate response to a specific illness or injury. In some cases, the appropriate first aid measure is enough in and of itself -- for example, putting a Band-Aid on a cut or ice on a superficial burn. This type of first aid can be described as self-sufficient.

There is also a broad category in which first aid literally means providing the "first" aid -- initiating a procedure such as CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) or defibrillation for a heart attack -- which will then taken over by medical professionals as soon as they become available. This is classic first aid.

But in other cases, appropriate first aid means that all one can do is to get expert medical aid for the patient as quickly as possible. This type of first aid is the invaluable act of summoning urgent medical assistance.

This however introduces another aspect of first aid. That is how to define the difference between "amateur" and "professional" medical care. Again, an "amateur" or layperson can handle many simple situations such as applying that Band-Aid or ice. But serious injuries or illness require professional medical attention. An "amateur" trained in procedures like CPR or defibrillation may be able to initiate the appropriate action until medical professionals can take over.

A Little "First Aid" History

First aid not only is a complicated subject in and of itself but it has a very complicated history. Although we have little information about prehistoric man, they must have been confronted by many situations requiring first aid. For example, they must have developed ways to stop bleeding, to stabilize broken bones or to determine whether a particular plant was poisonous or not.

Over time, certain individuals become more skillful and knowledgeable about how to deal with medical situations. These might have been the first shamans and witchdoctors. Perhaps this was also the beginning of the distinction between medical care which could be provided by the "amateur" or layperson versus the "professional." The distinction continued to develop as medical education and training became more formalized. In time, priests became physicians and barbers became the surgeons.

Another aspect of the history of first aid involved warfare. Men injured in battles and the lack of medical attention usually resulted in loss of life. In 1099, religious knights trained in medical care organized the Order of St. John to specifically treat battlefield injuries. In other words, although these knights were considered laypersons, they were formally trained to provide "first aid."

But it was not until the mid-19th century that the First International Geneva Convention was held and the Red Cross was created to provide "aid to sick and wounded soldiers in the field." Soldiers were trained to treat their fellow soldiers before the medics arrived.

A decade later, an army surgeon proposed the idea of training civilians in what he termed, "pre-medical treatment." The term "first aid" first appeared in 1878 as a combination of "first treatment" and "National Aid." In Britain, civilian ambulance crews were trained specifically for the railways, mines, and the police.

The practical skills of first aid have continued to evolve and there has been somewhat of a separation between first aid and emergency medicine. Today, ambulances in this country are staffed by personnel who not only are familiar with first aid but who also have more advanced training as paramedics and EMTs (emergency medical technicians).

Some Essential Points

We cannot repeat often enough that first aid is a complicated subject and that appropriate first aid is always situation-specific.

The better informed and trained we all are, the better prepared we should be to deal with an unexpected illness or injury.

And we would again reiterate that if you find yourself involved in a medical situation that may be beyond your personal abilities, you should not hesitate to summon emergency medical assistance immediately.

For more, please visit the First Aid Center.


Last Editorial Review: 8/1/2005




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