What to expect when you call 911, and what to do while you wait.
by Gerald Moore, Advanced Emergency Medical Technician (AEMT) at Southwest Health
Making the decision to call an ambulance can be very scary. Your adrenaline kicks in, your thoughts start racing, every episode of “Emergency” starts running through your head. So many thoughts and feelings rush in that you find yourself unable to communicate your message to the 911 dispatcher. What do you say? How long will it take? What do you do until they arrive? For some of us, this may be the most frightening situation we can imagine. Your loved one needs help, and you can’t help them. But you can. Even if your medical training falls far short, there are some things you can do. Here are some tips to help you through an emergency.
Imagine it’s a typical Sunday. You have some friends and family over to watch the big game. Suddenly, one of your guests slides to the floor, begins shaking, and isn’t responding. What now?
Your first reaction is to rush to his side and try to wake him up. His shaking has stopped, but he won’t respond to your voice. You gently shake him, while shouting his name, but still nothing. You grab your phone and dial 911.
The emergency dispatcher answers the phone; “911 what’s your emergency?” What do you say?
In those few moments while you are dialing 911, collect your thoughts. The dispatcher is going to need some information, and the better you can communicate this to them, the faster help will arrive. These are some things you should be ready to tell them:
- What service you need. 911 dispatch centers handle calls for police, fire, and medical emergencies; so let them know you need an ambulance.
- The address. Simple enough, unless you are out hunting in the woods. “Uncle Bob’s tree stand” for example, won’t help us. But something as close as possible will be sufficient.
- The nature of the emergency. In this example, “My friend may have just had a seizure!” would be sufficient. As EMS professionals, we call this the “Chief Complaint.”
Other things to note; the time that the event occurred, and how long it lasted. This is important for the EMTs as well as the doctor.
Now what? The emergency dispatcher may keep you on the line in case there are any changes that you need to report; try to give them any additional information after they have dispatched the ambulance to help the crew when they arrive.
What is the EMS crew doing? At Southwest Health, we are a hospital-based EMS service, so most often the crew is assisting in the Emergency Department when the call comes in. Our pagers will alert us and the dispatcher will give us the information that you have provided. We will immediately drop what we are doing and head for the ambulance parked right next to the emergency department. So, in just a few moments we are on our way.
What can you do for your guest during all of this? If they are still shaking, or start shaking again; clear the area around them of any furniture or other objects so they do not hurt themselves, and give them space. You are not going to “stop” their shaking physically, so don’t try. Just protect them from hitting anything hard.
What do you do when they stop? The most basic, yet crucial thing you can do is make sure nothing is obstructing their airway. Do not stick anything in their mouth, but do listen for sounds of breathing. If you hear breathing, your job is done! If you hear gurgles or snores, simply reposition their head to a natural position, and if necessary tilt their chin slightly up. This will help keep their airway free from obstruction.
If you live in the City of Platteville or on the UW-Platteville campus, a police officer likely will respond to the 911 call to assist. The officers are trained in CPR/AED and basic first aid. They may also help you with your next step; making sure the EMS crew can get to your guest.
When the crew arrives they are going to need to get to the patient and will want to get their stretcher to them as well. The stretcher is long and only fits through doors with inches to spare, so if possible, clear a wide path. If the stretcher won’t fit, we have other ways of moving a patient, but the stretcher is preferred.
Once the crew arrives, they will begin asking a lot of questions. Some things you can have ready to help them include:
- Name, age, and date of birth of the patient.
- When the event or symptoms began.
- How long did it last?
- Were there any significant things leading up to the event?
- Do they have any past medical history? These may include a history of seizures, heart problems, asthma, etc.
- Do they have any allergies to any medications or foods?
- What medications do they take and have they taken them today?
- When was the last time they had anything to eat or drink?
The EMS crews are going to have a big green kit with them as well. While they are asking these questions they are going to be doing their assessment of the patient. You may see them checking vital signs like blood pressure, oxygen concentration, pulse, blood sugar, and level of responsiveness.
At this point, the crew will place the patient on the stretcher and take them to the ambulance. They may not leave immediately. Depending on how the patient is doing, they may need to do some additional diagnostic tests in the controlled environment of the ambulance. The EMS crew may also start an IV or administer medications.
You can stay, or if you wish, at this time you may want to head to the hospital. If you want to follow the ambulance, that’s ok, but you are not allowed to “keep up with” an ambulance with its lights and sirens on. Once you arrive at the hospital you won’t be allowed into the patient’s room right away, as the ED staff will be getting them settled and doing any initial procedures, so take your time to arrive safely.
When you arrive at the hospital, tell the patient access representative (person at the desk) whom you are there for. Several things will need to happen before you will be allowed in, based on the practitioner’s assessment.
The last thing you can do is keep in mind that we are there to help. Since the moment Southwest Health EMS arrived, your loved one has been in the hands of highly trained, professional, men and women. And at the hospital, they will be under the care of Board Certified Emergency Medicine Physicians, well-trained nurses, and the EMS staff who brought them in!
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