Saving a Life

When put into extreme situations it is easy to judge ourselves harshly, but help is always available

Warning: this piece includes themes of substance abuse, overdose, stress and counselling.

This is the story of why I had to see a counsellor for the first time. Over the summer I was working full time at my part time job in fast food. I’m an assistant manager so my role means I’m responsible if there’s an accident and sadly I’ve lost count how many times I’ve called emergency services. Calling 000 is never a situation I like to be in. The last time I had to do it was my longest time on the phone. I remember staring at the time elapsed when I hung up. Nine minutes. It felt like a lifetime. Maybe because it was almost the end of someone else’s.

It was lunch rush on a weekday. We were under the pump but my team and I were handling it fine. Then one of my employees returns from cleaning the dining room and tells me I need to call an ambulance. There’s a woman passed out in the toilets.

I rush to the office phone. I dial 000 as I walk out to the customer toilets. I can still see the woman crumpled on the floor near the toilet vividly in my mind. There’s a white-haired woman kneeling over her. Later I find out she’s a retired nurse which explains why a pensioner left her lunch to help a stranger. I don’t know how this scenario would have played out without her.

On the phone the emergency call centre officer asks me questions about the situation. The officer asks me if we have defibrillator so I go back behind the kitchen to find it. Then I realise we don’t have one. I don’t know why I thought we did. This is one of many mistakes I made.

To my surprise the officer doesn’t criticise me when I tell him we actually don’t have one. I return to the unconscious woman at his instruction. Did I mention she’s unconscious? This is about the point I realised it too. I mean she was kind of mumbling but nothing audible or intelligible. The white-haired woman yells towards the phone that she’s taken drugs and she lifts up a small zip up bag with a pipe inside it to show me. The unconscious woman struggles to breathe and the white-haired woman says we need to do CPR. We try to move her onto her back as much as possible but the toilet bowl is in our way and she’s heavier than she looks. I’m scared to touch her. She’s a stranger after all, you don’t touch strangers. It scares me how limp she feels. I try not to think of her as a person.  

When the white-haired woman is ready to give compressions, I tell the officer I have to put down the phone. I know now I should have used my mobile so I had a speaker option. Or asked someone else to be on the phone so they could instruct us or meet the ambulance when it arrived. Another mistake. The white-haired woman starts pushing on the woman’s chest. She’s stronger than she looks. In first aid training I got told I didn’t push hard enough on the dummy’s chest. I assume the other step as we were trained to do in teams; mouth to mouth. I didn’t use a face shield even though I knew exactly where they were in the first aid box. Mistake three. I don’t remember if I held her head right or covered her nostrils properly. Mistake four. She started to breathe on her own so we turned her on her side to help her airways clear but I was just following what the white-haired woman told me to do. Mistake five.

I picked up the phone and the officer told me to count her breathing in and out. The white-haired woman kept patting the unconscious woman and encouraging her to breathe. Her voice and the officer’s voice sounded so loud. I couldn’t hear the breathing. I wasn’t sure if she was breathing. There was too much noise. The officer sounded strained when he told me to count every single breath so he knew she was breathing; yet I had trouble hearing because everyone sounded so loud and her breathing was so quiet. There was really just two voices in that room, including the one on the phone, but I’m sure the sound of the TV in the dining room was louder.

The officer told us to continue CPR because while she could breathe, it wasn’t regular breathing she could sustain alone for long. The white-haired women seemed reluctant to do so. I wasn’t in charge in this situation. I may have been the boss in the kitchen (literally) but I was caught between a fight for control between the white-haired woman and the officer. When we started compressions again, the white-haired woman was struggling to keep pushing. I asked her if she wanted to swap repeatedly but she kept refusing so I just waited until she said “28, 29, 30, go” and I would breathe into the woman’s mouth. This cycle continued for so long but it was probably really around 160 seconds. When the unconscious woman would start breathing she’d try to wriggle away from us but she couldn’t physically move much more than tilting her head. The white-haired woman would tell the girl to breathe and she’d stop compressions and the officer would tell us to keep going.

Then the paramedics arrived and I was immediately relieved. The paramedics say to us “keep going you’re doing great”. I’m impressed by their calmness. The white-haired woman stands up and says she’s happy to get out of their way. It almost sounds like there’s a smile behind her voice. She’s happy knowing the paramedics will take care of her. She’s happy with her efforts. She rubs me on the back and tells me “good job”. I leave the bathroom heading to the back of the kitchen but I can’t feel myself walking.

Inside the staffroom toilets I wash out my mouth. I feel like this is what you’re supposed to do when you’ve touched a stranger’s mouth with yours. I was at least right about this. The staff ask if the unconscious person is okay. I reply “I don’t know”. Then they ask if they can go on break. I don’t care.

A paramedic comes to check on me and I smile and pretend I’m ok. I know I will be, I just need to cry where nobody can see me. The paramedic tells me I need to go to a doctor in case I’ve caught something from the unconscious drug user whose mouth touched mine. It’s the nicest way somebody has ever told me I did something wrong.

For the next few days, crying and shaking are the only things I can manage. Friends, family and colleagues I don’t normally hear from call to check on me. I’m waiting for someone to call me an idiot for how I handled everything. Nobody does. They say I helped save a life. I feel like an unwilling participant in someone else’s bad day.

My workplace arranged counselling for me. I knew I should talk to a professional but I really didn’t want to. I’m always the friend to encourage friends to seek help if they need it and congratulate them for being brave enough to talk to someone but when it came time to walk the talk, I usually dodged it. I ignored the calls and texts to even just make the first appointment. Eventually I worked up the courage to have my counselling appointment, but agreed to have it over the phone because I hoped I could conceal my crying (it did not).

After the second session of counselling and the first of two tests cleared me of infection I felt better. I no longer panicked at work when I checked the ladies toilets or felt inferior when a customer made a complaint. I didn’t give it much thought until I had a car accident a few weeks ago.

My worry is not that this has been a bad year, my worry is that I’m bad. I’m faulty. I make dumb mistakes. And it just so happens that the timing of my accident reminded me I was due for my second test. The second test to determine if I’d contracted a life-threatening disease by being bad at helping someone. It’s incredibly unlikely, but the weight of failure and disappointment hits me in the back of the head. At least there are plenty of options out there to support me.

Everywhere I’ve turned since these events happened I’ve had support. My boyfriend. My friends. My workplace. My classmates. My parents. My aunties. My tutors. My university. My mum’s neighbour. My boyfriend’s mum’s boyfriend. My social media followers. My GP. My best friend’s dogs. Everywhere. I’m very lucky. I know some may not be as lucky. And their problem may be more long term and less recognisable than mine. But there has to be support somewhere for everyone. I know I was lucky that people wanted to help me before I asked for it but don’t be afraid to ask for support. Don’t be afraid to support yourself and put your mental health first.  


Words by Chloe Cannell

Photography by Emma Carter

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