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Spring 2012 Columnist headshots Credit: Sally Engelhart , Justin Cohen

Imagine if right now, as you read this column, the person next to you collapsed to the ground and lay unconscious — would you know what to do? Better question: If you did know what to do, would you do it?

Be honest with yourself. While I’m sure that many of you believe that you’d jump to the rescue of a cardiac arrest victim — the truth is that rates of bystander intervention are shockingly low. Audrey Blewer, from Penn’s Center for Resuscitation Science, told me in an email that bystander CPR is performed in less than one-third of witnessed cardiac arrests.

The low rate of bystander intervention has been pegged as one of the leading reasons for the abysmal survival rates of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest victims, which according to many estimates, hovers around only 8 percent.

People aren’t helping strangers when they have a heart attack in public. And a lot of the time, these victims die because of it.

Why aren’t we helping our neighbors? Why don’t we try to save their lives?

Well, some people just have no clue what they’re supposed to do. But my guess is that most Penn students have taken some kind of CPR course at some point in their lives.

I’d also bet that the majority of those who have been trained in CPR don’t remember what they’re supposed to do. Is it 30 compressions and three breaths? Ten compressions and two breaths? Do I have to recheck the airway every time?

College junior Amanda Rosenthal says she’s been trained several times as a camp counselor but still feels very unconfident in her ability to perform CPR.

I get it. It’s a ton to remember — especially if you’re like me and you can’t even remember the stuff that was on the midterm you took last week.

The truth is, however, saving a life really isn’t that hard.

If you witness a heart attack, you just have to do two simple things. First, call 911. Then, push hard and fast in the middle of the person’s chest.

There’s “no risk, no fear of causing harm,” Ben Bobrow, an expert in the field from the Arizona Department of Health Services, told USA Today.

No mouth-to-mouth, no counting, no acronyms.

Blewer explained that hands-only CPR, “eliminates several barriers to performing standard CPR.” It not only eliminates the fears of mouth-to-mouth contact with a stranger (that’s just reserved for frat parties, right?) but also eliminates the fear of doing CPR incorrectly.

While the Red Cross and the American Heart Association encourage the use of hands-only CPR only when the rescuer is unable or unwilling to perform traditional CPR, some studies suggest that hands-only CPR is actually superior to the traditional variety.

The thinking is that when someone goes into cardiac arrest the number one thing to do is get blood to the brain. When someone’s heart stops, your hands act as their heart. If you stop pushing, their blood stops moving. Because there is enough residual oxygen in the blood to for last minutes, wasting time on mouth-to-mouth deprives the brain of blood for critical seconds.

(A little aside here for all the future heroes out there: traditional CPR with mouth-to-mouth is still required for child victims as well as adults whose heart stopped due to breathing complications, like drowning or drug overdose.)

But whether or not hands-only CPR is better than the traditional type, the consensus, according to Blewer, is that the former is “an acceptable alternative to standard CPR.”

We’re all very capable of saving lives. It’s easy and there’s essentially no risk to yourself or the victim.

But the unfortunate truth is that most people don’t know what hands-only CPR is.

I polled Penn students (in a very unscientific SurveyMonkey) and 62 percent of students, almost two thirds, had never heard of hands-only CPR.

Hands-only CPR is easy and life saving, so why doesn’t everyone know about it?

The community initiatives to spread awareness of this CPR technique are lacking. In the future, we might expect to see public service announcements, fliers or ads in the community, but why wait for this?

College senior Brian Krawitz says he learned about hands only CPR in high school. Maybe an effective strategy is targeting young people in an academic setting.

Hands-only CPR is so easy but it’s not getting the publicity it needs.

The University should be doing more to get the message out there. Penn definitely has the power to get this simple message to a large group of people.

Everyone should know how to save a life.

Sally Engelhart is a College senior from Toronto. Her email address is Scientifically Blonde appears every other Thursday.

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