Lisa Savage with daughters Charlotte (left) and Holly

Safety First

28th May 2010

Imagine the horror of having your child choke before your eyes, of watching her turn purple and go limp in your arms, of trying to keep calm enough to resuscitate her.

Jill Glenn meets one woman from Bushey who went through this horrifying experience, and who’s changed her life as a result.

It’s a classic shot for the family album: two small daughters, one smiling mother. But just a few months before the shot opposite was taken, last summer, Lisa Savage, 31, experienced one of the most unpleasant events of her life. If it had all gone wrong, it could have wiped the smile off her face for ever…

It was a Saturday morning. Charlotte, 16 months, and grumpy because of a chest infection, was following her mother around the house, whining. Lisa kept returning her to father, Chris, 33, who was amusing the children in the living room. Charlotte wouldn’t stay. Suddenly her protests accelerated: she cried, screamed, threw back her head and… stopped breathing. “It’s surprising how calmly you can panic,” says Lisa now, who moved from kitchen to child in a nano-second. Charlotte was limp and heavy, her lips blue.

Drawing on some hazy recollections of long ago CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation), Lisa began gently, firmly, to compress her daughter’s chest. “I gave her a couple of breaths…” she recalls, “…it was probably less than a minute.” At the time, of course, it seemed to go on forever; the swift arrival of the paramedics and a hospital check-up – no underlying problems found – brought an eventful morning to a close.

It set Lisa thinking though. And researching. She discovered that stopping breathing is a surprisingly common thing for children to do on purpose. She also discovered that young Charlotte wasn’t above trying it again. More than once. Indeed, only a few weeks before I met Lisa (and the ridiculously adorable Charlotte herself) the toddler had gone into meltdown at a soft play centre, and a standard tantrum had escalated into another resuscitation. “She gets upset… goes red, and then white as the colour drains… it’s as if she panics and then doesn’t know how to breathe,” explains Lisa, adding, “and there’s something different about the cry.”

Between those incidents lies a wealth of experience that made Lisa far more confident in her ability to cope second (and third and fourth) time around. After that initial dreadful Saturday morning she discussed with her Health Visitor the possibility of going on a ‘first aid for children’ course; the HV thought it a great idea – but didn’t know of any. The only training that Lisa and her sister-in-law Andrea (who, with a toddler son of her own, was now just as aware as Lisa of the potential for disaster) could find was designed to turn out fully-qualified paediatric first aid instructors. So first Andrea, who was already trained in baby massage, and then Lisa, a primary school teacher, went through the course.

By the time they’d finished they were more convinced than ever that there was a huge need for the sort of knowledge they’d acquired. They were comfortable now about being able to deal with childhood emergencies – but were all parents as happy? Both were increasingly convinced that everyone who comes into regular contact with children should know what to do in a crisis.

And so, Charlotte’s choking fit led to the forming of a new training company, Precious First Aid, designed to deliver the skills and confidence to deal with an emergency involving your child or someone else’s.

A Precious First Aid course will teach a parent or carer how to make the best judgment in a range of situations. Sometimes, rushing in isn’t necessarily the best decision, Lisa explains; a moment to assess can make a huge difference. The Emergency Life Saving Skills course focuses on the first aid skills needed in more serious situations involving babies and children; the Basic Paediatric First Aid course covers the same content but also deals with additional paediatric related accidents and sudden serious illnesses.

Neither is designed to encourage people to take on unrealistic levels of responsibility or decision-making; both are about getting help, and preserving life. “You just do as much as you can,” says Lisa, explaining also that the training also helps participants to observe properly, so that if you need to call an ambulance, for example, you know “what to say, and when, and to whom…” It means that paramedics have a much better chance of being able to be effective as soon as they reach the scene.

“These courses are really designed to give you confidence,” says Lisa, who knows how much her own skills and judgement – and passion for first aid training – have blossomed since Charlotte choked that spring morning last year. She does admit, though, that when the last incident occurred she was apparently yelling “Breathe, breathe, breathe” at her daughter while implementing paediatric CPR in an otherwise exemplary fashion. She didn’t know she was doing it; a friend just mentioned it afterwards. She was, however, delighted that she had been able to operate on a professional level while reacting on a maternal one.

It’s a skill that everyone should have…

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