Friday, May 26, 2006

A Breathing Lesson

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I actually looked forward to taking the CPR class offered by my company this week. My reasons for taking the class are probably not everyone else's. It's one of those "past or future" riddles. I'm taking it to answer a question about the past. They usually take it in anticipation of a possible future.

They served us dinner during the course, but I had no appetite. Looking back, maybe I was afraid, a little. Not just of the possibility that this experience would trigger a painful migraine, but afraid the answer to my question would be: I did it wrong.

Because when my father was dying, I didn't know CPR. ...more »The method was new enough that my lifeguard certification, Girl Scout lifesaving, babysitting and first aid merit badges hadn't included it, although they taught us everything from cross-chest carry to mouth to mouth on pets. I'd seen it performed, but only on tv shows. I knew it involved pushing on the chest, counting, and alternating with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. What if I'd done it wrong? What if I'd just made him suffer more? Or worse, what if I'd actually caused damage? Maybe that's why I've waited 27 years to take this class. Not wanting to find out that one of the defining moments of my life had been a monumental fuckup.

My father made it to the hospital that day, but he never made it out of ER. I don't think he or any of us expected he would. We knew his heart was failing, so it wasn't heroic, what I did. It was just part of being the only one home that day.

ER doctors don't come out to tell you your dad is dead, and it's your fault. They know better. Unlike sisters. When my dad had been in the same hospital a month before, my middle sister had taken me aside in the family waiting room and said, "this is your fault." She thought my wild ways had caused his heart attack. Like he had any idea. I can't say I've forgiven her for saying that. I don't know that it's possible to truly forgive that, any more than it's possible to truly blame her.

You don't hesitate when someone is dying in front of you. You just get on your knees and do your best. I watched my classmates re-enact the 29 year old scene in our family bathroom over and over again that night. Except they weren't crying, or begging Resuscit-Annie not to die. But they were a little panicky, especially the first few practice rounds. Forgetting the rhythm, forgetting to count, forgetting to check for signs of life after a cycle of puffing and pushing. I pretty much fell into the middle of the class's bell curve. I needed prompting, guiding, encouragement.

I don't' think anyone guessed my secret: that I have been here before. That if I'm doing it wrong, it's not because I haven't tried. Move your hands, push down here, stop and check for circulation. It's hard to get the order right, and that's probably why they developed the order. And why they make you repeat it over and over, and watch everyone else repeat it over and over. When the day comes, you won't have time to think. You'll just get down on your knees and do your best.

One of the trainers told us that it's easier to have someone else check the pulse if you're the one performing CPR, because they're less likely to mistake their own pulse for the victim's. I said, "one way you can tell, when you're on your own is if the face turns from ash gray to pink." He said, "That's a good idea." Like I'd just thought of it.

But that was the only way I could tell that anything I was doing to my father mattered. His face would turn pink. And he'd start up with the death rattle again, which would rise to a groan, and sink into a gasp. Should I have stopped? But every time I backed away from his body, he'd slip into gray again. So I'd go back, pounding on his chest a few times, moving over to breathe into his mouth.

"Gasping is not breathing," said trainer number two. They showed a video of an actor imitating a gasping near-corpse. As if someone knew I needed to actually see and hear it.
Some of my classmates were a little hesistant to push on the Resuscit-Annie's rib cage. I knew what they were thinking. So did the trainer. "What do you do if you break a rib? You keep on going. He doesn't care, he's dead."

That was the answer I needed. I still felt a bit out of body and out of time as I pumped on Annie's rubber chest, but I was learning. Next time someone needs me to breathe for them until help arrives, I'll at least know I'm doing it right, even if they don't care because they're already dead. We're all already dead, I guess that's what I really learned. We're all already dead. Your next breath is cake and icing.