SWITZERLAND • Alessandra calls them her angels. She was skiing with her four-year-old daughter and her husband in Campo Blenio, a small town 1,200m above sea level and 15km away from the nearest first aid station. That's when she was hit by a cardiac arrest.
Alessandra fell down and her lips and ears turned blue. Her husband quickly realised the seriousness of the situation, called for help and started to put into practice what he had recently learned: cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Soon after a police officer, a doctor, a rescuer and a defibrillator arrived and minutes later a rescue helicopter, making it possible to take her to a hospital. Alessandra was saved.
But what happened to Alessandra was not a miracle. She is just one of many happy endings made possible thanks to First Responders: ordinary people - perhaps a colleague, a friend or a neighbour - who, when alerted by a message on their smartphone, at any time and in any place, are ready to go to a person's aid and become resuscitators; to run to help someone who has suffered cardiac arrest in a matter of moments.
Out of a population of 350,000 people, there are 2,000 "lay rescuers" in Ticino, first responders who have been trained over the past 11 years by the Ticino Cuore Foundation. Their mission is clear: to be on the scene of a cardiac arrest as soon as possible.
"Every minute that goes by," says the foundation's director, Mr Claudio Benvenuti, "the chances of survival diminish by 10 per cent, while increasing the risk of brain damage."
Considering the average time for an ambulance to reach a patient is nine minutes, it is not surprising that up to 15 years ago, 80 per cent of cardiac arrest cases did not survive. Hence alternative solutions were brought into place. This has promoted the dissemination of resuscitation techniques among non-professionals year after year, making more than 1,000 defibrillators available to the public, as well as created the First Responder network.
"This network," continues Mr Benvenuti, "has, over the past decade, developed and transformed into a model that is catching on globally."
It works like this: first responders download and install a specific application on their smartphones. When somebody calls 144 (the Swiss emergency number) and the operator recognises the symptoms of a cardiac arrest, an alert message is sent immediately, appearing on the smartphones of all 2,000 lay rescuers. If any of these people are close to the patient, he or she then receives instant directions to the patient's aid. Not only this: the nearest location of a defibrillator also appears on the responder's smartphone screen.
The speed of response and availability of help are what make the First Responder scheme a winning recipe. The numbers confirm it: "Over the last 10 years, the survival rate following a cardiac arrest has tripled in Ticino," Mr Benvenuti says, highlighting that, "specifically, what was 16 per cent in 2003 became 55 per cent in 2014".
Thus, an ordinary person can become a First Responder and, perhaps, even an angel.