Before the Ambulance Arrives

Emergency Care

Tammy George

Knowing what to do between the time you call for an ambulance and its arrival can improve a patient's survival rate and recovery. The minutes after an incident are crucial and providing the right first aid can make a big difference to a patient's outcome.

We don't always know what has happened to a patient, but if you think they may be suffering from a heart attack or stroke, there are some things you can do.

Experiencing a Possible Heart Attack

A heart attack victim may develop chest pain over several minutes or suddenly with the pain ranging from severe, moderate or mild. The pain may spread from the neck or a choking/burning feeling in the throat, heaviness in one or both arms, aching or tight jaw or an ache between the shoulder blades.

While waiting for an ambulance to arrive:

  • Ensure the patient sits or lies in a comfortable position
  • Reassure them and loosen any tight clothing
  • Help the patient take any angina or heart medication previously prescribed or give them one aspirin to chew on
  • Start CPR if symptoms worsen

A Possible Stroke Victim

Signs of a stroke include paralysis, unable to speak, blurred or decreased vision especially in one eye, difficulty swallowing, dizziness or loss of balance, severe headache, drowsiness, confusion or loss of consciousness. Stroke victims can have their symptoms reversed if they receive treatment within a few hours so call an ambulance immediately.  

While waiting for an ambulance and the patient is conscious:

  • Lie the patient down but keep their head and shoulders elevated with pillows or cushions.
  • Loosen any tight clothing,
  • Keep their airway and mouth clear and open
  • Reassure the patient that help is on the way
  • Don't give them anything to eat or drink

While waiting for an ambulance and the patient is unconscious:

  • Check the airway and if clear, place the patient in the recovery position
  • If the patient isn't breathing, proceed to CPR
  • Apply a defibrillator if one is available and follow the prompts.  

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Difficulty Breathing

Being unable to breath can have several potential causes including asthma attack, an allergic reaction including anaphylaxis. Assist the patient to take any medication they may have and if their condition doesn't improve, call an ambulance.

Potential Spinal Injury

When someone injures their neck or spine, bystanders need to take action to prevent further damage. A spinal injury should be suspected if the patient has a loss of sensation or tingling in hands or feet or a loss/impaired movement below the site of an injury.

While waiting for an ambulance and the patient is conscious:

  • Do not move patient unless they are in danger.
  • Reassure patient that help is on the way
  • Use tightly rolled towels to keep the patient's head, neck and spine in a neutral position.   

While waiting for an ambulance and the patient is unconscious:

  • Place patient in the recovery position supporting neck and spine in a neutral position, so there is no bending or twisting.
  • Check airway is clear and open.

In the time of an emergency, having first aid training is vital to a patient's survival and long-term outcome. Make sure you take regular refresher first aid courses to keep your skills up to date. Your family, friends or colleagues may need your assistance one day.  

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We hope you will never need to call an ambulance, but if you do you will want the fees covered. Check out HIF’s Ambulance Cover for details of benefits in your state.


Tammy George

Please note: Tammy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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