Has the glamorous heroine been saved from drowning with a few light chest presses and a true love’s kiss? Has the superstar patient been revived from his deathly coma mere minutes after he rolled up in the gurney, all thanks to compressions on what appears to be the wrong part of his chest? And, above all—have you watched similar scenes in your favourite movie or TV show, paused for a minute, and thought, “wait—would they really pull this off in real life?”
In truth, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, is an emergency measure that’s received the same treatment in popular media as the use of oxygen masks and the insertion of intravenous (IV) needles— that is to say, it’s often portrayed inaccurately. Sometimes, the procedure is much too simplified, while other times, the techniques shown look quite haphazard or a little random.
Ironically, medical dramas are often the primary culprits of such travesties, but to their credit, the teams behind such productions must make do with the limited time and resources that they have in order to get the story across to their viewers. In other words, just like in any fictional portrayal of a real-life person, action, or event, some suspension of disbelief is required by the viewer when watching medical emergencies on screen.
Regardless, CPR in visual narrative and CPR in real-life should not demand the same expectations. While characters in movies and TV series can play around with the time and technique elements of CPR, real-life first aiders have little allowance to dilly-dally when someone in front of them has suddenly stopped breathing. Learn what fiction gets wrong—and what first aiders must get right—about CPR in our feature below.
In a previous article published here on our website entitled “What is CPR?”, the technique is defined as a life-saving one that is administered in dire cases of emergency such as a heart attack, drug overdose, or instance of drowning. Such events put a person in the threshold of death because their oxygen supply has been cut off. As per the article, “The longer that a human being goes without oxygen, the more likely severe damage—and even death—can occur.” If a bystander can administer CPR properly before professional medical assistance arrives, then they have the chance to save someone else’s life.
At its core, CPR is a technique that combines alternate chest compressions with artificial ventilation or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in order to push oxygenated blood from the casualty’s lungs to their brain. CPR requires one to apply a certain number of chest presses with the hands (usually 30 compressions) before providing ventilation via deep breaths (usually 2 breaths). The 30:2 compression-ventilation cycle must continue until medical help has arrived, and in the case of a heart attack, until one can implement the use of a defibrillator.
In contrast to real-life situations, TV and movie portrayals of CPR are often unbelievable because: (1) the application of the technique is imprecise; (2) only a fraction of the routine is completed; and (3) somehow, with minimal efforts, the victim of the emergency wakes up and immediately comes to their senses.
Think of instances in which a few presses and one short puff of breath instantly brought a character back to consciousness—and suddenly, they are also able to speak and move their appendages as normal. Because minimal chest force was applied, they are also likely in no need of additional care or surgery for accidental fractures to their ribs or sternum. In reality, close to a third of patients that receive CPR suffer broken bones. Indeed, if these cases ever took place in a real hospital or in an ambulatory setting, they would probably be deemed medical miracles!
A work of fiction like a movie or TV series will also change the scene up in order to maximise drama. An unrealistic number of people may be yelling, pushing each other aside, and trying to intervene all at the same time—all while the victim’s chances of recovery without permanent brain damage continues to decline. Moreover, a member of the medical staff will sometimes be portrayed as jumping right to CPR without taking the patient’s pulse or checking their mouth for breathing. Suffice to say, cinema and television often eschew the painstaking, methodical, and repetitive aspects of CPR in order to embellish the plot.
CPR is a technique that can reverse the odds of death and permanent disability if administered properly. If you want to learn the real thing that you can use in real-life emergencies, you can take Australia Wide First Aid’s Provide CPR course. Conversely, if you are not a first-timer and you just want to refresh your memory regarding the correct techniques to use, you can opt for our Express CPR course.
You’re free to enjoy the visual narratives of medical emergencies in your favourite shows and films—plot twists and treatments and all. But let’s make sure you’re ready to respond to an emergency in real life!
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