Sunday 18 March 2018

First on the scene: 'I just knew it was my father in trouble'

In a twist of fate, Susanne Byrne's debut as a First Responder was only 50 yards from her house - to her parents' home. Five years later the 34-year-old tells our reporter why being part of the social group is vital to her rural community

Susanne Byrne, pictured with her Samoyed dog Sasha, is a First Responder in Co Wicklow. Photo: Siobhan English
Susanne Byrne, pictured with her Samoyed dog Sasha, is a First Responder in Co Wicklow. Photo: Siobhan English
Siobhan English

Siobhan English

In the summer of 2011, Susanne Byrne received a text alert she will remember for the rest of her life. "It was after midnight, and I was on my way to bed," she recalls, "but when the partial address of 'Loughmogue, Dunlavin' lit up the screen of my mobile phone, I just knew it was my father in trouble. That was our address."

As a newly registered First Responder, the 34-year-old was certainly not expecting her first call-out to be so close to home in Co Wicklow, one year later.

"The text came through automatically once my mother called for the ambulance but she did not realise I was on call. To protect me, I suppose, she had all the lights turned off so I wouldn't see anything alarming from my house.

"Even though I had never been called out before, as a trained First Responder I swung into action and immediately got dressed before driving to my parents' house 50 yards up the road.

"Thankfully the doctor from K-Doc was already there attending to my father and was doing routine tests, but I put him on oxygen to make him more comfortable. Within a few minutes he began feeling better," she added.

"Once the ambulance arrived I get got back into daughter mode and followed them to Naas Hospital."

Having undergone a triple bypass only two weeks previously, it later emerged that her father Douglas, who was in his mid-60s at the time, had possibly suffered a phantom angina attack. He was also diagnosed with anaemia, but after 24-hour observation, he had made a full recovery and returned home.

Susanne, who works in the area of animal nutrition, recalls the day she made the decision to train as a First Responder.

"My father was a championship table tennis player in his younger days but had suffered from angina for years. As a farmer he was involved in a few bad accidents over the years between falling off a horse one Christmas Day, and then suffering extensive injuries when a cattle barrier hit him in the face.

"Although he's now semi-retired from farming, I felt I needed some sort of training should anything ever happen to him again.

"My grandfather died from heart disease at a relatively young age and my uncle Jim also had a quadruple bypass, so I am well aware of the dangers of having heart disease in the family and I felt the training was something I needed to have under my belt.

"I was in Dunlavin one day and saw the AED (automated external defibrillator) on the wall of a shop. After making enquiries I found out that the group of First Responders met once a month, so I joined up a few weeks later and spent two days doing intensive training.

"That was five years ago and fortunately I have only ever been called out once since to attend to a person having chest pain. He was fine too. As I live in a rural area I thoroughly enjoy being part of a social group who are there to help people."

The group meets up once a month for ongoing training and to discuss rotas, for which volunteers offer their time sporadically throughout any given month.

The kit bag containing the defibrillator and other necessary equipment, such as a scissors and aspirin, is kept locally for volunteers to access as needed. There is also a 'buddy' system whereby the person on call can request the assistance of another volunteer when attending a medical emergency.

It is estimated that 5,000 people die each year in Ireland from a sudden cardiac arrest. Of the estimated 5,000 people who died in 2013, 66pc of the cardiac arrests occurred at home. A total of 1,903 people received intervention by an Emergency Medical Responder and CPR was attempted in 69pc of these cases, with defibrillation used in a further 16pc of cases before the ambulance service arrived.

Tragically the current survival rate of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest in Ireland is 6.4pc, or 120 people. After suffering a cardiac arrest for every minute that passes, the chances of recovery are reduced by 7-10pc. If CPR is started and an AED is used on a patient within three minutes of going into cardiac arrest, they have a 70pc chance of surviving.

Cardiac arrest can occur without warning when the electrical system of the heart unexpectedly stops functioning, whereas a heart attack occurs when blockage in a coronary artery interrupts blood flow to the working heart. A heart attack can also lead to cardiac arrest.

Community First Responders are civilians trained in resuscitation and the use of a defibrillator, which delivers a therapeutic dose of electrical current to the heart when someone is suffering from chest pain, cardiac arrest or a heart attack. The volunteers will only operate within a three-mile (5km) radius of their communities.

When on call, they are contacted by the ambulance service when an emergency call in their area is received. Local responders often arrive on the scene before an ambulance and in cases where time is critical, this can save lives.

On her first introduction to the Dunlavin group, Susanne met John Fitzgerald. He is credited with forming the first ever regional group for volunteer First Responders in Ireland 11 years ago.

Also a resident of Dunlavin, John, too, came from a family with a history of heart disease. His mother had suffered a heart attack at the age of 71 and he lost several uncles to heart failure.

He says: "After the sudden deaths of several young sportsmen too I felt we needed to get together as a community and form a group to assist the ambulance service. Out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is not an ambulance problem, it is a community problem.

"We held our first public meeting in November 2004 and some 400 people turned up that night. It was an overwhelming success."

The Wicklow Cardiac First Responders now boasts almost 250 members in some 24 groups across the county. Since 2005 they have responded to 3,600 call-outs.

In 2013 the umbrella group was recognised for directly saving four lives when winning a National Healthcare Innovation Award in the category, 'Innovation in Quality of Service Delivery - Community Based'.

John says: "Last year was another milestone for us in that we logged our tenth [life] save across the county. Four of those occurred in 2015.

"Here in Dunlavin we have 15 volunteers and six defibrillators, but there are an estimated 10,000 defibrillators across Ireland and there could never be enough people trained in how to use them in order to save more lives," he concludes.

How it works...

The Community First Responder scheme operates in conjunction with the HSE, and the HSE ambulance service has rolled out the model which has been in operation in Co Wicklow since 2005.

There are now more than 100 CFR schemes around the country. The training of volunteers is done under Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council (PHECC) Cardiac First Responder and Irish Heart Foundation protocols. It includes cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the use of a defibrillator and oxygen therapy, which is used in nearly every call-out.

Responders are also trained to use suction and in the administration of aspirin in the event of someone experiencing chest pain. The group also provides training on dealing with choking and stroke recognition. All training is provided under ambulance service protocols.

■ For further information on this and CFR schemes in your area see

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