The Greatest Gift You Can Bring to Any Holiday Gathering

It only takes a few minutes to learn the basics of CPR. So as you prepare to share the company of family and friends this holiday season, consider this: The best gift you could bring to any party is knowing how to save a life.
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Five years ago this month, my friend Vince and his wife hosted a holiday party for some of their closest friends -- four couples they'd traveled with just a few months earlier.

They'd gone together on a three-day bicycle tour of the wine country near Sonoma, California. Riding from winery to winery, they savored the sun, the breeze and of course the local specialty. They bought a variety of reds and whites to enjoy at home and, to save on shipping fees, they sent everything to one address -- Vince's. Once all the goodies arrived, it seemed perfect to distribute them as part of a holiday get-together.

As his friends were enjoying the first bottle in the living room, Vince was off opening the next bottle.

That's when he heard the commotion.

One of his pals collapsed, toppling right into a cocktail table.

He wasn't breathing. He had no pulse.

Before Vince takes over with the rest of the story, I ask you to imagine being in a similar situation.

Would you know what to do if you were around someone who collapsed?

What if you collapsed? Would your family and friends know what to do?

It only takes a few minutes to learn the basics of CPR. So as you prepare to share the company of family and friends this holiday season, consider this: The best gift you could bring to any party is knowing how to save a life.

Luckily, Vince did.

My friend is actually Dr. Vincent Bufalino, a cardiologist who's won the American Heart Association's Physician of the Year award. He also played a key role in our expansion of lifesaving training. While all this made him eminently qualified to respond when his friend collapsed, the most remarkable part of this tale is that anyone -- anyone! -- could follow the steps he took to save a life.


2014-12-05-Dr.Bufalino.jpgAs we pedaled our way up and down those Northern California hills, Dan Biggins was easy to find. He nearly always led our pack. Dan's a good cyclist, which means he's also in good shape -- and, seemingly, was in good health.

Yet on that unforgettable night, I found him sprawled on my floor, dying.

My wife and two other guests knew CPR, so we all started the lifesaving technique. Meanwhile, another guest called 9-1-1, and someone else went out front to make sure the ambulance easily found our house.

About 30 or 40 seconds into giving CPR, I remembered that in the trunk of my car was something else we needed -- an automated external defibrillator, or AED. (Yes, it is rare for someone to have an AED in their car. I'll explain more about that later.)

Once my wife retrieved the AED, we moved the furniture and everyone cleared away. The machine shocked Dan back to life before the paramedics even arrived.

At the hospital, doctors discovered that Dan had a condition called cardiomyopathy. He also had low potassium levels. This could've been a lethal combination had he collapsed alone, or if he hadn't been surrounded by people trained in CPR; the lucky fact I had an AED helped prevent further damage, too.

Sadly, the odds are that someone who suffers cardiac arrest won't be as lucky.

The main reason is that nearly nine in 10 cardiac arrests occur at home. Even if it occurs in a larger setting, not enough people around know CPR... and some who do lack the confidence to use it.

Formal training is great. Yet you can still save a life by remembering the few simple steps needed to perform "Hands-Only CPR." If you see an adult or teenager collapse, just call 9-1-1, then push hard and fast in the center of the chest, preferably to the beat of the classic disco song, "Stayin' Alive" until help arrives. Locating an AED is a huge help, too; all such machines are programmed to walk you through the steps of how to use it.

(Quick medical tip: Cardiac arrest and a heart attack are often confused for each other, but they are quite different. A heart attack is a plumbing problem -- a blocked artery -- while cardiac arrest is a problem with the heart's electrical circuitry. Compressions keep oxygen-filled blood flowing through the body, while the high-voltage jolt of an AED can restart the heart.)

I'm proud to say that I was the chairman of the AHA's Emergency Cardiovascular Care during a national AED rollout campaign. I live in the Chicago area, and one of my pet projects was getting AEDs put every 200 feet in O'Hare Airport. The next year, the survival rate of cardiac arrests there went from 5 percent to 82 percent (9 of 11). Two of those saves included people who'd never used an AED grabbing it off the wall and letting the machine walk them through the process.

Along the way, I decided to put my money where my mouth was. I bought three AEDs: for my kids' high school, my church and my trunk.

Six months after we saved Dan's life, the principal of the high school called to say that the AED there saved the life of an adult playing basketball in the gym. So I'm 2 for 3 on the AEDs I bought.

One of my patients is the mayor of suburban Naperville, Illinois, and with his support, we started a CPR training program in the early 2000s. Our goal was to train 25,000 people; we're now over 55,000 and still going strong.

I've also been part of a campaign to put more AEDs in communities, starting with high-traffic areas such as the train station, community center, library and municipal center. The devices were given for free, but came with two strings attached: Community leaders had to train people how to use them, and they had to call me when they were used to save a life. I've gotten a bunch of calls. Some communities like them so much that they've since bought AEDs for every police car.

We're still losing more than 300,000 people per year to cardiac arrest. As the O'Hare example showed, we can spike the survival rates just by having more AEDs. An easy rule of thumb is that anywhere there's a fire extinguisher there should also be an AED.

Not every story has a happy ending. In fact, Dan was the third person whose life I tried saving outside of my job, and he's the only one who made it. I arrived too late to help the other two.

The time for action is so brief -- roughly 10 minutes, or less. That's why it's so crucial to have people who know what to do.

Hands-Only CPR is a great start. Taking a 30-minute course is even better. I encourage you to become among the 14 million Americans each year who learn CPR, and then to pay it forward by training others.

You just never know when you might need it.