PORTLAND, Ore. — Ron Rhodes calls them his guardian angels.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the event,” the 72-year-old said.
Rhodes was out walking his dog on a dark, rainy morning last November when his heart stopped. He doesn’t remember leaving hom, or anything about that morning, but he remembers waking up in the hospital hours later.
But Megan Carpenter remembers it vividly.
Carpenter was also out with her dog, Ava, on the field behind Beverly Clearly School in Northeast Portland when she saw Rhodes collapse.
“He suddenly just slipped,” Carpenter said. “I knew that something was wrong in that split second and I ran over to him as quickly as I could.”
That’s when Carpenter’s CPR training, which she learned in college, kicked in.
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Carpenter immediately called 911, turned Rhodes onto his back in the mud, then started chest compressions.
“I hear a voice saying, ‘Do you need help?’” Carpenter recalled. “And I said ‘Yes!’ because at that point, [three minutes later], I was getting tired.”
That voice belonged to Hilary Bennett, who took over compressions.
Carpenter and Bennett then worked together, trading off and encouraging one another until an ambulance arrived four minutes later.
Rhodes, who has since fully recovered, said he believes if the two women hadn’t sprang into action as quickly as they did, he wouldn’t have survived.
“I don’t know what you can do for somebody that… saves your life,” he said. “I mean, there’s not enough money in the world.”
First few minutes can mean life or death
The survival statistics weren’t in Rhodes' favor. Studies show around nine out 10 people who suffer cardiac arrest outside a hospital don’t make it.
According to the American Red Cross, more than 300,000 people die of sudden cardiac arrest in the U.S. every year.
It usually occurs in adults, though it can happen to anyone.
But CPR, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation, which mimics the pumping action of the heart, keeps oxygen rich blood flowing to the brain.
While a person’s chance of survival drops about 10% every minute they’re left waiting for first responders, according to the Red Cross, quality CPR can double or even triple their chance of survival.
“Those first few critical minutes, before the EMS personnel arrive, can really mean life or death for someone,” said Jennifer Kenagy, who’s been teaching CPR with the Red Cross for over two decades.
Kenagy puts it like this: “You’re giving them the best fighting chance they possibly can.”
She said she was once teaching an infant CPR class in Kenya when she suddenly had to put her skills to use on a newborn baby boy.
“We worked on him for a good half an hour, but he was kind of inside momma too long,” she remembered solemnly.
Kenagy said she’s passionate about empowering her students, and about making sure they don’t get caught up in numbers and instruction manuals, but instead, in the big picture.
“I do really believe that most people that leave my classes, I trust could save my life,” she said.
Practice makes perfect
It turns out, learning CPR is both straightforward and simple.
More than 2.4 million people across the country take some form of Red Cross CPR or first aid training each year.
Some do it to meet work requirements, while others are curious and want to build enough confidence to know how to step up in an emergency.
Training in the Portland area begins, for non-first responders, with online learning.
It’s a small commitment: two to three hours of videos and interactive exercises, with requisite tests paced throughout to pass to the next stage.
Throughout, there's a constant reminder of the three basic Red Cross steps that apply in nearly every emergency:
- Check (that the scene is safe and the person is nonresponsive)
- Call (911 for help or designate someone specific to do it on your behalf)
- Care (for the person).
“You wouldn’t be expected to just jump into the pool and start swimming,” Kenagy explains. “When you get to practice it in class, you get to feel it.”
Participants take turns playing responder and coach, watching each other closely for the proper hand placement for adult compressions: center of the chest, heel of one hand planted, the other hand threaded over the top, fingers up, elbows locked, shoulders and body weight over the hands.
The lifelike mannequin below the participants is created to feel like the real thing. It lights up red across the forehead to show participants that they're hitting their target, and crucially, going deep enough with compressions at least two inches for an adult.
The participants learn about giving two breaths for every 30 compressions, each using own one-way plastic breathing barrier and sanitizing the mannequin’s mouth as they trade off.
“In a real situation, your adrenaline is going to pumping behind. Anxieties are going to be high. There’s a lot of distractions,” Kenagy said. “So really focus on calming yourself down and thinking about what you’re doing.”
Hands-only or compression-only CPR is an option, Kenagy explains, though the Red Cross doesn’t teach it and it isn’t compliant with certain labor regulations.
And while the science supports that full CPR — with 30 compressions alternating with two breaths — is most effective, Kenagy said, in the world outside classroom walls, she believes giving something is better than nothing.
‘The greatest accomplishment’
Dawn Johnson with the Red Cross presented Megan Carpenter and Hilary Bennett with their National Lifesaving Award.
Including Carpenter and Bennett’s awards, it’s only been handed out six times in the region in the last three years.
“What you did was nothing short of remarkable,” Johnson said, while Ron Rhodes, who nominated the pair for the award, looked on and applauded with friends and family.
It’s the second time Carpenter has had to perform CPR. The first was on a man who collapsed in front of her mother’s home. He didn’t survive.
“It was really healing, actually, to be able to save [Ron] after losing someone,” Carpenter said.
She’s now advocating that anyone who is able to get CPR trained, do so as soon as possible because they’ll never know when they’ll be called on to help.
And Rhodes, who has stayed in touch with both Carpenter and Hilary Bennett, couldn’t agree more.
“It was the willingness to put [their] hands on a total stranger,” Rhodes said. “[They’re my] two guardian angels, [who made] sure this wasn’t my last day here.”
“It makes me feel great,” Carpenter said. “I think it’s the greatest accomplishment that I’ll ever have in my life.”
To learn more about becoming CPR/AED/First Aid certified, or to take an online-only course, visit the American Red Cross.