Only Mostly Dead

“[I]t is your duty to learn how to resuscitate a lizard,” a writer in Arizona told pool owners in the Southwest, on her blog, in 2014. She provided instructions for CPR. Three years later a woman in Nevada brought a lizard back from a near-drowning in her pool. No word if the two are related, but it is good to be prepared.

Other human-animal CPR in the news includes a squirrel (“wild animals won’t necessarily know you’re trying to help them and can inflict dangerous bites or scratches to their would-be savior”), a bear cub, a foal, and a pigeon. The pigeon’s prognosis is gloomy: after resuscitation attempts, it was eaten by a seagull.

CPR is no joke, but there is something about one mortal body palpating another’s recalcitrant heart—about a spiritus sancti smelling of lunch onions—that is tragicomic. Lump it under hubris, daring to take on godlike powers.

“Woo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much,” Miracle Max says in Princess Bride as he prepares to revive hero Westley with a fireplace bellows.

The idea of CPR goes back to the 18th century and the British Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned. Its aims were educating the public to help after accidents, paying bystanders who made rescues, and providing gear to medical assistants. Later it was renamed the Royal Humane Society for the Apparently Dead; now it is the Royal Humane Society.

A waterman on the Thames became the Society’s first awardee, in 1774, when he pulled a lifeless infant from the water. After being beaten on his back and rubbed with salt, the child revived.

A similar society in Amsterdam tried warming victims, putting them head-down, pressing abdomens, blowing air into victims’ mouths (as we would, or with bellows like Miracle Max’s), tickling throats, blowing smoke up their butts (really), and bloodletting.

Of course, people have cardiac arrest for many reasons other than drowning; 350,000 people in the United States arrest each year outside hospital care. Fewer than half receive some sort of CPR. Of those who do, almost half survive for some amount of time. Earthly attempts matter.

My elder son works as a lifeguard over summer breaks. He told me the CPR protocol had changed, in part due to Washington University research. Blowing breaths is no more. I did not know this; only 11 percent of the public who say they know CPR know it has changed. Compressions alone, 100-200 per minute, two inches deep, keep oxygenated blood moving and may exchange some air in the lungs.

Survival depends on the victim’s age, existing medical problems, what caused the arrest, whether the rescuer accidentally causes more trauma, and how quickly EMTs arrive. A Danish study shows victims’ chances are tripled, in some cases, if a bystander performs CPR, but the 30-day survival rate is still under 15 percent. When CPR is given in a hospital, 10 to 20 percent survive long enough to be discharged.

But we try, is the point. We must try. That is the touching hubris of humanity, all walking around together mostly dead, that we attempt to help each other in “Ah ha ha ha Stayin’ Alive.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.