The airport can be a terrifying place, especially during an emergency. That was the case for one man at the Denver International Airport on July 26th.
Miss California (our very own Kelley Johnson RN, FNP-C) had just gotten off a packed flight from Los Angeles when she noticed a crowd gathering in the terminal. The crowd wasn’t moving; everyone was just standing there. That’s when Johnson, a natural caregiver, sprang into action
“I knew something was wrong; I know when crowds are standing huddled around, there’s either something entertaining, an argument, or a health emergency. This one felt emergent.”
Miss California Sprang into Action
“I ran over to the crowd and saw a man who wasn’t moving, and definitely did not appear to be breathing. I pushed my way through the crowd, could not locate a pulse whatsoever, and immediately started CPR. No one else was doing anything; everyone looked like they were in shock and just stood motionless,” she explained.
Johnson notes that many people remain inert or in shock during emergency situations. Just about anyone can freeze during these moments.
A report from the HPT Institute shows that around 75% of people will exhibit a lack of critical response during an emergency. They tend to exhibit impaired reasoning and sluggish thinking, often behaving in a reflexive, “almost automatic” manner. The human response to these situations depends on neurocognitive function and the time it takes for a person’s brain to process the steps between perception and action.
The report attempts to explain why cognitive reasoning may be delayed in these situations. First off, the brain can only process so much complex information in an emergency, especially if someone’s life is on the line. This is usually due to the complexity, unpredictability and rapid development of the situation. There’s also a limit to how fast the brain can process this information. This leaves people with little or no time for deliberation or action.
The report also found that response times can be improved through training, practice, and experience. This helps people, regardless of their background, prepare for and respond to emergency situations. Fortunately, Kelley Johnson has plenty of experience when it comes to saving lives.
It’s just part of her daily routine; however, she still needed the staff to help quickly with an accessible AED machine.
“I get it, everyone freezes and it is a very intense situation, but I was shouting at the airport staff to run and get the AED machine. I recognize AEDs in most facilities, especially while traveling, and I already had spotted the machine before I even knew of the situation. I was telling the staff where it was located, but no one was going to go get it. I could not stop chest compressions, so there was no way for me to get it myself. It was frustrating and literally the difference between life or death in my mind at that time.”
A Life Saved
Kelley performed CPR for five minutes before the EMTs arrived to take over, which inevitably saved the man’s life.
“His wife was standing there shrieking, but no one was helping her, either. When the EMTs showed up, I immediately comforted her and reassured her that the shocks they gave him started his heart and he seemed to be breathing on his own. The paramedics didn’t seem to have much of a sense of urgency, and after she had already watched the airport police and staff refuse to grab the AED I was asking for I could tell that she was, of course, extremely confused and worried.”
“I just didn’t understand. I have not encountered an emergent scene like that before. It is typically very high-paced, high-functioning, and communicative. I felt like I was in a slow motion movie, but I was surrounded by people who typically operate in fast forward. I am not trying to be judgmental, and I have a ton of respect for our police department and emergency response teams. I just feel strongly that it is important to shed light on the very real lack of time that we have to save lives when something like this occurs. I want to help uncover solutions moving forward.”
It’s not clear why the EMTs were so slow to respond that day. Maybe they were burned out from COVID-19 or had just finished dealing with another emergency in the airport.
Many of us think that first responders are equipped to handle anything that comes their way, but the pandemic puts EMTs at risk of burnout and fatigue just like the rest of us. Experienced emergency health technicians have been leaving the field since the start of the current health crisis due to the added stress of the job.
Their work can take a significant toll on their mental health, leading to burnout. The Federal Healthcare Resilience Task Force describes burnout as “feelings of extreme exhaustion and being overwhelmed.” Signs of burnout include:
- Sadness, anxiety, or apathy
- Feeling like a failure
- Feeling that nothing you could do would help
- Believing that you are not doing your job well
- Being convinced that you need drugs or alcohol to cope
The consequences of provider and EMS burnout include exhaustion, depression, decreased productivity, cynicism, detriment to the quality of life of first responders, and failure to catch medical errors that can harm patients. As such, the lack of urgency displayed by EMTs responding to the scene at Denver International Airport could very well be due to COVID-19 induced career burnout.
Angels Among Us
First responders and healthcare providers like Kelley Johnson save hundreds of thousands of lives every year – on and off the job. As for the man saved by Johnson at the airport, he is reportedly undergoing tests at UC Colorado after coding in the ambulance and being brought back with continued CPR and AED shocks. Anyone touched by the saving hands of a healthcare professional knows how much every second counts; the need for these amazing individuals knows no bounds.