At an oratorical competition that I was judging, a school student opened her speech with this punchline: “Where there is no GO, there is an NGO!” The reference was to a vaccum created by government inaction and filled by activists. That one liner flashed across my mind when a good friend and Chairman of Ethiraj College Mike Muralidharan requested me to moderate a stand up panel discussion to mark the thirteenth year of ALERT, an initiative of two corporate executives – Rajesh Trivedi and Kala Balasundaram, to train citizens in First Aid. The subject triggered a tsunami of thoughts, ideas and questions.
If the government can strive to make Yoga compulsory in schools to ostensibly promote ‘health’ and ‘fitness’, why can’t First Aid be introduced as a compulsory programme in our educational institutions? Surely, there can be no objection from any quarter to a movement to ‘Catch Them Young’ to save lives? My mind went back to a week long First Aid course conducted at my school – Don Bosco, Egmore, by Dr.Radha Rajagopalan of Apollo Hospital, who also happens to be the wife of retired Tamil Nadu Director General of Police Dr.R.Rajagopalan. While we were taught basic techniques like adminstering Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), I do need a refresher course to handle a real life situation. When we can update ourselves on the latest technology with everything else in the world, why is that we neglect something so basic that could save the lives of our family members, colleagues or strangers in distress?
When parents can pack their kids off for a slew of extra curricular activities, tuitions for almost every core subject and entrance exam coaching classes, do we really think they will fight shy of signing up for a life saving skill? And why only students? Most companies have outbound programmes and there is a statutory provision for Corporate Social Responsibility. Why can’t they have regular First Aid modules for their staff? In India, the auto driver is no longer the only ubiquitous factor on our roads. Swiggy delivery agents, Ola and Uber drivers have joined the pack. Why can’t they be trained in First Aid to add to a fleet of first responders? Can’t ‘Skill India’ take under its umbrella such meaningful tasks?
Close to three decades ago, an Uncle of mine Tony Henry, migrated to the United States of America. When he had a medical emergency, the ambulance arrived in a jiffy, not unlike what we see in tv serials like Chicago Med or Chicago Fire. After his discharge from the hospital, he mentioned that had he not been in the US, he may not have survived. We certainly are making rapid strides in medical care but the sheer alacrity with which emergency response teams function in the West has to be seen to be believed. Back home, how long does it take for an ambulance to reach its destination? How many of us make way for them in traffic? Years ago, a former colleague at NDTV – Darius Taraporvala, who suffered a heart attack, chose not to wait for the ambulance but drove to the hospital, clutching his chest in true filmy fashion. You may call them isolated instances but they are symptoms of gaps in our emergency care. It’s not just about ambulances reaching on time. What is the response inside an average Emergency Ward in our hospitals? Most hospitals claim to have 24×7 Cardiac Care Units. Do they also have cardiologists present 24×7 or are these super specialists just on call between midnight and dawn? Invariably, with exceptions, it’s a fairly junior duty doctor who is on duty at Intensive Care Units or Emergency Wards, after certain hours. Be it an accident or a heart attack or stroke, the Golden Hour is crucial. Do our patients get expert attention at the right time? Do pizzas and swiggy food deliveries happen faster than ambulance arrivals? Such viral whatsapp messages are no longer jokes but a frightening reality.
Abroad, there is 911 for any emergency. Here, we can have a quiz question on helplines! How many of us know the number for the Fire Briagde or the Ambulance? Is it 101 or 102? What’s 103? We are conquering outer space. Is it that difficult to have a common emergency helpline in India? Can’t ‘Make In India’ come up with a durable model that can address all emergencies – medical, disasters, domestic and child abuse, fire, accidents?
Following the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the Pandit Paramanand Katara case, on ‘medical attention first, legal formalities later’, there has been a gradual but only partial change in the attitude of passers by, the police and hospital staff. But try taking a victim of an accident or crime to a hospital today. A good number of them will direct you to a government hospital citing a ‘medico-legal case’. Some will insist on an advance payment. Let’s be practical. How many Good Samaritans will be ready, willing or able to cough up an advance for a stranger? Assuming admission is done, and a surgery is needed, who will sign the Consent Form? And how many hospitals will not mind starting a surgery without a financial guarantee?
Half knowledge is sometimes more dangerous than ignorance. The possibility of first aid being botched up by an inadequately trained first responder cannot be ruled out. When even a chosen doctor with decades of experience can be hauled up for medical negligence when things go awry, where does that leave a semi skilled layperson who administered first aid to a stranger? Like whistle blowers, should they be granted a degree of immunity? Will that be fair to a victim whose condition gets complicated due to errors in first aid? These are not just shades but thick bands of grey that need to be addressed. The need for proper certification of first responders looms large. But in a country where it is possible to get a driving licence without a proper test, how reliable will such certification be?
Making First Aid a compulsory subject in educational institutions with a minimum pass mark and a mandatory module at the work place with prescribed standards must become a patriotic task. After all Article 51-A (g) stipulates, inter alia, that having “compassion for all living creatures” is a Fundamental Duty. Let our ‘Joy of Giving’ extend to the ‘Joy of Saving’. You will agree that this is a bigger priority than lynching people for eating beef or holding hands.
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)