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First Aid

Published by Contra Costa Times
Posted on Wed, Oct. 05, 2005
By Al Gatmaitan, RN, BSN, PHN

THE MOST important rules of first aid are what not to do, rather that what to do.

The first rule is: Don't become the "victim", as they are called in medical emergencies. Tragically this is an all-too-common occurrence.

One example is a rescuer jumping in to save someone who appears to be drowning, only to be pushed under by the desperate drowning person who is blindly fighting to stay afloat.

Generally a better approach is to toss a life vest or float to the person, rather than jumping in yourself.

Emergency situations sometimes inspire heroic actions, but it doesn't make sense for the rescuer to replace the victim. Often, calling for a safe rescue response is the best way to provide effective first aid.

Another example of this is in treating an open wound. The aid givers must protect themselves from blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. The best way is with clean (usually latex) gloves and gauze pads, but in an emergency, the rescuer can use plastic bags or even spare clothing to stop bleeding while still protecting him or herself.

These and other important lessons can be learned in first aid classes, available for a modest cost at many hospitals, local schools, and the Red Cross (510-594-5100 or

And first aid kits are available for as little as $15. But it's important to know what you are doing before using your first aid kit.

The second rule of first aid is to stabilize, but not worsen the condition of the victim. This means not assuming that you know what's wrong, and never giving treatment you aren't qualified to give.

Recently, I was at a picnic where a child injured her knee. As a registered trauma nurse, I offered first aid to the child, consisting of rest, ice and gently elevating the injured area. And I suggested the family call 911.

Some onlookers expected me to provide more extensive treatment. But experienced doctors and nurses seldom try to diagnose injuries or illness without x-rays and other tests.

This child's injury looked unusually deformed and painful to me, and we did not have splinting supplies, so I thought 911 was appropriate.

Situations of most concern are bleeding that doesn't stop, chest pain, shortness of breath, confusion, loss of consciousness, or loss of function, such as the inability to speak, a weak or paralyzed hand or the inability to see out of an eye.

A limb that looks disfigured or turns blue can also be an emergency. In most cases, though, a leg or arm injury can be gently transported to the ER by private car.

But if in doubt, call 911. Leave care to the most competent professionals, who may be the transport personnel.

The first rule of first aid is to not become the victim. The second rule is to not make the victim worse. Then be sure the victim is out of harm's way (away from traffic, for example). Then stabilize the victim and help get him or her to the nearest available competent medical facility.

To prepare, take a first aid course from a local school, hospital or the Red Cross. Your family and friends may be very grateful someday soon.

Al Gatmaitan is a Public Health Nurse with Contra Costa Health Services/Healthcare for the Homeless Program.

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