What to Do After Calling 911

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

You've called paramedics, but they'll take several minutes to arrive. What should you do in the meantime?

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Your husband complains of chest pain. Your grandmother slips in the shower. Your mother has difficulty speaking -- seemingly out of nowhere.

You dial 911 and you wait. Though it usually takes an average of seven to 10 minutes for the emergency medical services team to arrive, it can seem like forever if you are feeling scared, helpless, and panicky. But health and safety experts tell WebMD that there is lots you can do during those 10 minutes to make sure that your loved one not only survives the emergency, but also to minimize any lasting damage.

We'll tell you what we found out. Starting with ...

The Basics

"Start by being prepared," says Sue Leahy, regional director of American Safety and Health Institute (ASHI), based in Holiday, Fla.

Having worked on an ambulance, Leahy knows that "when you get to someone's house, there are a lot of questions that you need answers to, and it saves time if you have medical histories in written form to hand to the paramedic along with a list of medications and anything that the person might be allergic too," she says. For example, knowing that someone is allergic to a bee sting may help if you found that person passed out on the couch.

"When an emergency is going on, you don't think clearly, so also having social security number and insurance information ahead of time will eliminate a lot of guesswork for the paramedics," she says.

Do this prior to any emergency, she recommends. Leahy suggests a kit called The Vial of LIFE (Lifesaving Information for Emergencies) to store important medical information.

"Boy Scouts give them out to senior citizens," she says. Local fire and police departments and hospitals may also give them out. "It looks like a prescription bottle and inside is a piece of paper where you fill out your medical history, and then you place a decal on fridge saying "vial of life in the refrigerator,'" Leahy says. "We all look for the sign," she says.

Also, Leahy tells WebMD, let the paramedic know what the person was doing just before they became ill or fell down. Were they raking four acres of leaves on a hot July day? Did they just eat an entire sausage and pepperoni pizza?

Another generic pointer: "You should never move anybody unless it is a dangerous situation where the scene is unsafe," she says. "Leave them where they are until ambulance arrives."

Greg Stockton, a national health and safety expert for the American Red Cross, based in Washington, D.C., says: "Don't panic because whatever emotion you display will be mirrored back to you with any age group, especially an older population or the very young," he says. "Stay with them and reassure them that more help is on the way."

Stockton also suggests that everyone take a first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) course.

Specific Emergencies

Heart attack. Every year, more than 1.1 million Americans will suffer heart attacks. No doubt, we have all seen commercials touting baby aspirin as a way to save a life during a heart attack. In fact, the American College of Emergency Physicians states that aspirin reduces the risk of death by up to 23% if administered when heart attack is suspected and 30 days thereafter. The group states that the use of aspirin as heart attack first aid has the potential to save 10,000 lives per year. "Aspirin can a be natural blood thinner, so unless the person has an allergy to aspirin or is taking other blood thinners, giving aspirin for a suspected heart attack is a good call," Leahy says. Aspirin improves blood flow by reducing the stickiness of the platelets that form blood clots and clog the arteries, causing heart attacks. Regular aspirin use helps prevent clots from forming as readily and helps to keep arteries open.

Stockton adds: "If you are not sure about aspirin allergy or other medications, don't do it," and that if "the person is conscious and has a medication for heart disease that they know they can take in case of emergency, assist them to get it and take it."

Stroke. Every 45 seconds, someone in the U.S. will have a stroke, according to the National Stroke Association (NSA). It is the nation's third largest killer and a leading cause of permanent disability. More than 750,000 Americans will experience stroke this year, 160,000 of them will die, and of the 4 million stroke survivors, two-thirds struggle with disabilities ranging from moderate to severe. Though there used to be little to do to stave off lasting neurological damage when a person had a stroke, times have changed. The most promising treatment for ischemic stroke is the FDA-approved clot-busting drug tPA, which must be administered within a three-hour window from the onset of symptoms to work best. "These drugs are only effective if stroke is caused by a clot in brain, so it's important to let the paramedic know when the stroke occurred," ASHI's Leahy says. When the person is brought to the hospital, they will receive a CAT scan to see if the stroke is ischemic and if they are appropriate candidates for tPA.

Ischemic strokes occur as a result of an obstruction within a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain. So how can you tell if it's a stroke? Call 911 immediately if the following symptoms occur: sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg (especially on one side of the body); sudden confusion; trouble speaking or understanding; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; sudden trouble walking, dizziness, and/or loss of balance or coordination.

Falls. By far, falls and the injuries associated with them including strains, sprains, dislocation, and fractures are the most common emergency situations, says the Red Cross's Stockton. "After you make sure the person is conscious, avoid any movement that causes pain, and no matter what the injury is -- strain, sprain, dislocation, or fracture -- apply ice or a cold pack to the body until help arrives," he tells WebMD. "Put ice where it hurts and be sure to wrap the ice in cloth so you put barrier between skin and cold," he says. No ice? "You can use anything cold, including frozen vegetables or a can of soda," Stockton says. "Veggies form to the body part, and that works well." Always, "try to make the person as comfortable as possible."

If the person is unconscious, immediate medical care is required. "Check for pulse and breathing in that person, and if they have signs of circulation, place them in the recovery position, which is a cross between lying on a side and the fetal position, as if they are on their side in bed using a hand as a pillow," Stockton explains. "Do not put them on their back or stomach because you must prevent choking."

Play detective, he adds. Look around for signs and clues of what caused them to lose consciousness. Is there food, an indication they could have choked? Empty medication bottles? Alcohol?

Published Aug. 4, 2003.

SOURCES: Sue Leahy, regional director, American Safety and Health Institute. Greg Stockton, national health and safety expert, American Red Cross.

©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors