We cannot stress enough the importance of having a first aid kit with you or nearby wherever you go. Every business is required to keep one, every government office too. Heck, even trail heads will advise you to take one with you on your hike. We’ve all had cuts and scrapes that we were grateful to have patched with a quick dose of anti-septic and a band-aid. But what about the extremes?
First Aid for Micro-Wounds
In tenth grade I was a student in our high school’s metal shop program, run by an eccentric and much loved teacher who we’ll call Mr. Crazy. During our debut visit to the shop all the students piled in, chatting to each other and waiting for the lesson to begin. We jumped out of our skins when Mr. Crazy slammed his hammer against the table we were gathered around as hard as he could, making the room ring and shocking us all to attention.
“Listen up!” he called, making sure he held every eye. “First Aid’s first. If you get so much as a sliver, I want it dealt with properly.”
He walked us around the shop, showing us the off-white eye-wash station, the tired red first aid kit, and the squeaky clean, brand-new box of disinfectant wipes. He explained each of the symbols for poison and caustic, and where and when to wear gloves, aprons, and eye protection. With all of this done, he held up his hand, displaying missing fingertips and crooked fingers. He told us the story of each, but one in particular stuck with me.
“And this one,” he wiggled his left ring finger, top intact but stunted and wonky, “was from filing a piece of copper. I got a sliver of metal under my skin – didn’t think anything of it at the time, it was no big deal. By the time I got home it was a little red, and when I woke up the next day it was swollen, hot, and turning my veins crimson. My wife rushed me to the hospital, and if we had waited any longer, the doctor said I could have lost the whole thing.”
Mr. Crazy’s crooked fingers are the perfect reminder of how important treating even the tiniest wounds can be. A quick rub with a disinfecting wipe, or a dose of Polysporin could have saved that teacher a lot of pain. Inaction over an infection could have lead to worse, losing the digit, or even the limb.
I’m not saying we should all rush to treat every splinter or bitten tongue we come across, but know the signs of infection and be ready to take preemptive action if you’re in an unsanitary environment. If you see redness around a wound, swelling, unusual discharge (green or cloudy), or begin to get a fever, consider applying antibiotic. If symptoms persist, visit your doctor or the local hospital.
Major, Life-threatening, TV-worthy Wounds
If you’re hoping I’m about to tell you how to stitch a wound, tie a tourniquet, or conduct heart surgery, then you’re going to be disappointed. In fact, I’m going to tell you not to do any of those things. At least, not without the proper training.
We get people in our store regularly who look at our first aid kits and have the following conversation with us:
“Does this come with a suture kit?”
“No, sir. Butterfly closures are in there and do a similar job.”
“What about splints?”
“What’s the point then?”
“Well, sir, do you know how to use a suture kit or set a broken bone?”
The truth is, most people don’t have medical training, and shouldn’t pretend that they do. Watching Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t qualify anyone for a medical degree (but what a world if it did!). In fact, when people try to mimic media, or use techniques they are unfamiliar with, they will often do more harm than good.
We spoke to a retired first responder and fire chief who really drilled this home for us. He told stories of well-meaning individuals administering first aid outside of their skill set, with unpleasant results. Physical consequences aside, the legal impact of conducting first aid above one’s training level can be devastating. On more than one occasion the retiree recalled watching people’s lives be torn apart by lawsuits, all because they gave unwanted help, or their good deed didn’t go as planned.
So, what can you do?
You don’t have time for med school, but you still want to help. That’s really admirable and you should be proud. Happily, there are things you can do as a lay person to help in a serious medical emergency:
- Call for help. The 911 dispatcher will be able to walk you through situation-specific instructions.
- Use the classic line “Is there a doctor in the house?” – Help might be at the next table over.
- Take a class to learn the very basics. The Heimlich maneuver, CPR, and basic wound management are great starting places.
- Comfort the victim. If they’re still conscious, they’re probably terrified. Even just speaking to them and stroking their hair can have a huge emotional impact.
- Make sure there is a clear path for first responders once they arrive at the scene.
- Once first responders arrive, get yourself and anyone else out of their way.
If you find yourself in or near a medical emergency, act with intention and forethought. Never assume someone else has already called 911 unless you can see/hear them doing it, and always follow the instructions of the professionals. Whenever possible, have first aid supplies on hand, and educate yourself on how to use them.
Thank you for reading!
This article was written by Zenia Platten – Writer and emergency preparedness professional.