How could first aid training help you?
ATIYYAH AFZAL will never forget June 11, 2021. She was at home in East London, where she lives with her parents.
She had been a full-time trainer at St. John Ambulance for 18 months and her job was to travel to offices and other workplaces to give first aid courses to staff.
That day, however, in the midst of a pandemic, Atiyyah, then 26 years old, was on call at her home.
Her mother Parveen, 54, worked from home and at lunchtime she went to the kitchen to make a sandwich.
After spreading chutney, she licked a leftover piece of pickle from the spoon.
Suddenly, Atiyyah, who was in the living room, heard frantic knocking sounds.
As she ran, she found her mother holding her throat, unable to speak. Her face was flushed and panicked, her eyes bulging. Atiyyah realized she was suffocating.
“Three years earlier, I would have had no idea what to do,” says Atiyyah. “But the autopilot kicked in. We practice choking procedures once a month, so I knew the drill inside out.”
As distressing as it was to see her mom like this, Atiyyah kept a cool head and went through her training.
With the palm of her hand, she first gave her mom a series of blows in the back, between the shoulder blades.
When that didn’t work, she performed abdominal thrusts, with her arms under Parveen’s diaphragm. She was still choking.
Finally, with two more kicks to the back, she heard her mother stammer and take a deep breath. It was finished.
“It probably lasted about three minutes, but it felt a lot longer,” says Atiyyah. “Mom was shaking and had bruises on her back because I had to hit her so hard, but she was fine.”
Atiyyah had undoubtedly saved his mother’s life. “If you hadn’t been home today, I don’t think I would be here,” Parveen told her.
Atiyyah remembers seeing the deep relief in his father’s eyes when he came home.
“It’s different when it’s a loved one,” Atiyyah says. “You really appreciate what you have been able to do. I’m an only child, but we have a close-knit extended family, and I’ve told my cousins how important it is to know first aid.
“You don’t need these skills until you need them. Being prepared and having confidence in your training can save a life.
It was not a path Atiyyah expected to take. Three years earlier, she was working as a science teacher in a secondary school. “I started teaching at 22 and felt I needed more global experience,” she says.
She took the Emergency Response Course over two weekends, which was her first time learning how to deal with choking.
Right away, she liked the supportive atmosphere in St John. “It was like a family,” says Atiyyah. So when a position presented itself for a full-time salaried trainer, she applied and got the job. She is now a lead trainer.
In addition to her work as a trainer, she volunteers at events, giving first aid to the public when needed.
“I’m a huge cricket fan and love being on duty at Lords. I was lucky enough to be there during the Cricket World Cup and in 2019 at Trooping the Color I saw the queen in her carriage.
Otherwise, it could be anything from a West Ham football match to a vintage car enthusiasts day.
“Everyone should know basic first aid,” says Atiyyah, stressing the importance of strong skills that people can rely on in an emergency.
Driving to a community cricket match, she came across a road accident involving a cyclist. Well-meaning passers-by tried to help but did the wrong thing.
“I had to hold people back, tell them not to move him and not to remove his helmet when help arrived.”
As Atiyyah says, everyone is welcome at St John Ambulance. “They want you to be the best you can be and there’s a real sense of community.
“I have a great job and I’m forever grateful for my training. If I hadn’t had those skills, my mom wouldn’t be here today.
Atiyyah says, “I started working for St John as a volunteer and still do, in addition to working for them as a trainer in my day job.
“Many people don’t realize that St John is a charity and needs donations to help train and equip volunteers to save lives.
“It means a lot to me that donations can help save someone else’s mom or dad.”
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