What to do when faced with a medical emergency

Posted on December 14th, 2018

From drowning to road accidents and serious burns – Netcare 911 provides expert advice on what to do in these medical emergency situations.

What to do in a medical emergency

“Wherever you may find yourself this holiday season, the key thing to remember should you be faced with an emergency is to try stay calm and remember the contact telephone number of an emergency medical service provider. Rest assured the operator on the other end of the line is experienced in medical emergencies and can advise you on what to do until professional help arrives,” says David Stanton, head of clinical leadership at Netcare 911.

ALSO SEE: How to create a first aid kit for every possible emergency situation

What to do in the event of drowning

  • Get the victim out of the water as soon as possible, but do not become a victim yourself. Make sure it is safe for you to enter the water first.
  • Handle the person with care. Many submersion incidents are associated with neck injuries, so keep movement to the back and neck to a minimum.
  • Assess to see if the person is awake by asking, “Hello, can you hear me?”
  • Check for breathing by looking at the chest for no longer than 10 seconds. If the person is not breathing or not breathing normally (i.e. gasping), call immediately for medical assistance.
  • Call, or have someone call, a recognised medical emergency service provider such as Netcare 911 on 082 911 as soon as possible. The caller must give the call taker an accurate location of the incident and a contact number at the scene. If you are unsure of the exact location, the nearest intersection or large landmark would also be helpful.
  • Never hang up on the call taker until they say you can do so, and always return to the rescuer to inform them that you have called for help.
  • If the person is not breathing, immediately start CPR, beginning with chest compressions. Keep doing CPR at a ratio of 30 chest compressions, followed by two breaths.
  • CPR is vital, even if it is an amateur administering it. Keep on doing it until someone who is trained in advanced life support arrives and can take over.
  • All parents should learn how to administer child CPR, as it differs from adult CPR. All people can benefit from CPR training – it is not a difficult skill to learn.

ALSO SEE: Your summer first aid guide

What to do in the event of a road accident

  • The very first thing you have to do is ensure your own safety. Is it safe for you to be around the accident scene? Your safety is first priority and you can’t help anyone if you are at risk.
  • Stop in a safe place, with your hazard lights on and put a warning triangle at a fair distance back from the scene to alert motorists to the possible danger ahead. This will give them enough time to slow down safely.
  • Look around the scene for any possible hazards. These may include petrol or diesel leaks, fire, oncoming traffic, dangerous animals or hostile bystanders.
  • Assess the scene and see if there are any injuries. If there are, make sure you phone for help by dialling an emergency medical services provider such as Netcare 911 on 082 911 immediately. Remember to give the call taker your number in case the call gets cut off.
  • When you call for help, make sure you have the location of the incident handy. If you are unsure of the exact location, the nearest intersection or large landmark would also be helpful.
  • If possible, provide the call taker with a brief description of the accident scene, the number of injured patients and the nature of their injuries.
  • Do not move an injured person unless absolutely necessary as you may cause further injury, especially if the person has suffered spinal injuries. Rather try to keep injured people calm by talking to them and reassuring them that help is on the way.
  • If there are any patients who are bleeding heavily, try to stop the bleeding by compressing the wound with a clean towel or piece of clothing.

“There are also a few other things that you should keep in mind in order to prevent further harm to yourself or those involved. For example, never touch an open wound or any bodily fluids of another person if you do not have the necessary protective gear such as gloves, face masks and eye goggles. If a patient has a foreign object impaled anywhere in their body, do not remove it unless absolutely necessary as you may cause further harm by removing the object. Wait for emergency medical services to arrive and assist where required,” notes Stanton.

Dos and don’ts of first aid for burns

Remain calm and extinguish flames (if any)

If a person’s clothing has caught alight, they must stop, drop and roll to extinguish the flames. In an emergency when clothing is on fire, action must be instinctive and immediate and so everyone should know the principle of ‘stop, drop and roll’.

  • STOP because running will fan the flames.
  • DROP to lie flat on the ground, and cover your face with your hands for protection.
  • ROLL over and over to smother the fire until it is extinguished.

Look after your own safety

If the patient has an electrical burn and is still in contact with the electrical source, switch off the electricity before assisting them. If you can’t switch off the electricity, use an object that does not conduct electricity, such as a wooden broom handle, to separate the person from the power source.

When extinguishing flames on a person, be careful that your own clothing does not catch fire. In the case of a chemical burn, use protective eyewear and gloves to ensure that you do not get the chemical on yourself.

Cool the burn area

Run cold water over the affected area for at least 20 minutes in the case of minor to moderate burns. This may help to limit the damage to deeper skin tissues, and is also effective for chemical burns, as the water can help to dilute the harmful substance.

Call for advice and assistance

Call an emergency medical service provider as soon as it is practical to do so. As each burn is different, give the call taker at the emergency operations centre as much information as possible. This will help them to give you the most appropriate advice and assistance. Wrap the victim in a clean sheet and take them to a medical facility or wait for an ambulance, whichever will be quicker and more appropriate in the circumstances.

Smoke inhalation

One of the leading contributors to death and/or disability is smoke inhalation. Even though fire victims may not present with physical burns, they may have inhaled poisonous gases released during a fire. The combination of noxious gases as well as heat can lead to inhalation burns and respiratory injuries that may not be readily apparent. All victims who have been present during a fire with smoke need to be evaluated as soon as possible to prevent secondary complications.

Don’t attempt to apply any substances to the burn

Do not put ice on the burn, as this can further damage the tissue. In the case of extensive burns, do not cool with water for too long because this could cause hypothermia.

Do not put oily substances, pastes, turmeric, egg white, toothpaste or topical ointments on the burn, nor press cotton wool or fluffy material directly onto the burn, as this could increase the chance of infection. However, you can use a burn dressing or ointment recommended by a pharmacist, and this should be covered with a bandage or cling film to prevent infection.

Never peel off or open blistered skin, as this could expose the area to infection.

How severe is the burn?

Don’t underestimate the severity of a burn. Rather, consult a medical professional.

  • Superficial partial thickness (first degree burns): These burns are painful and red. Sometimes blisters may form. However, they usually heal with little or no scarring.
  • Deep partial thickness (second degree burns): Severe pain, skin discolouration and blisters, often with scarring, are characteristics of these burns. Seek medical advice.
  • Deep thickness (third degree burns): These burns cause deep damage to all three layers of the skin. They destroy hair follicles, blood vessels and nerve endings. The burns victim may also experience breathing difficulties and circulation problems. Seek immediate assistance from emergency medical services or a trauma facility equipped to deal with burn injuries.

“In the case of burns, the first thing to do is remove the patient from the source of the burn. Hold the burnt part of the body under running water until it becomes less painful. Do not use ice or hot water – the normal cold water taps provide the ideal temperature. Finally, cover the burn with a hydrogel dressing. As a general rule, burns bigger than the patient’s hand should be seen by a doctor in a hospital,” explains Stanton.

How to report an emergency

  • Dial the emergency services number.
  • When the call is answered, begin by stating “I have an emergency…”
  • Give your name and contact number clearly.
  • Immediately state whether it is a life-threatening situation and be specific about the nature of the emergency.
  • Give your exact location and the physical address or location where the individuals requiring assistance can be found.

Download this app

In an emergency, the mySOS app sends an alert to Netcare 911’s national emergency operations centre, or other relevant emergency services, and your selected loved ones to show them your GPS location. The app also makes a phone call to Netcare 911, or the most appropriate service provider for the type of emergency encountered, so that assistance is mobilised in the shortest possible time. The mySOS app can be downloaded for free here.

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About Xanet Scheepers

Xanet is an award-winning journalist and Living and Loving’s digital editor. She has won numerous awards for her health and wellness articles and was a finalist for the Discovery Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011 for the Discovery Best Health Consumer Reporting and Feature Writing category. She is responsible for our online presence across social media channels and makes sure our moms have fresh and interesting articles to read every day.