Called into action off duty – Saving a life with CPR
“My advice to others is to just do something. You have to have the willingness to have a go if you want to give that person a chance to live.”
On 29 December 2020, Superintendent Richard Breiner was holidaying with his family in Tuross Heads – a coastal town of New South Wales, Australia. Richard, a senior off-duty police officer with ACT Policing, was playing cards with his young children, with his wife Esther Breiner nearby.
“I was busy losing a hand to my kids at some sort of unicorn game, when I became aware of distressed and raised voices at the house next door. After a long time working in my field, you get an instinct for when something isn’t right,” Richard explains.
Richard and Esther both walked out to the deck, and their concerns were escalated when they peered into a neighbouring yard to see a man lying on the ground, and a younger male yelling into a phone on a call for help.
Within seconds Richard was jumping the fence to get to the scene, where he was able to assess the situation – an apparent Sudden Cardiac Arrest of a man approximately in his fifties, who had moments earlier been about to tend to a barbecue. Family members and friends were appearing quickly around the man – all in heightened states of shock and worry. At this point, the patient was turning pale and blue.
“I asked if anyone knew CPR and I spoke briefly with the emergency services on the phone. Once it was apparent that CPR was needed, and that the ambulance might take some time to reach us, I quickly began chest compressions.”
Richard’s training and experience helped him to remain cool and calm. This was not the first or last time that he has had to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), but usually he has experienced these situations in the line of duty – not as a civilian bystander. Esther Breiner also sprang into action - having previously received basic first aid training through her work in the airline industry. The two quickly and confidently worked as a team, rotating to perform compressions. They learned that the patient’s wife had worked in nursing, and she began contributing to rescue breaths, despite her own distress.
The vital role of early intervention before ambulance help arrives
The first emergency personnel member on the scene was Senior Constable David Quick, who arrived in his police vehicle. Unfortunately, this vehicle was not fitted with a defibrillator, and so together, Richard, Esther and David – along with support from other bystanders – continued manual chest compressions for an extended period.
“We were taking turns, but it was quite a long wait. When the ambulance crew arrived they checked in on us, and supported us to keep going, while they applied the defibrillator pads, and started administering an air bag and medications.”
While the average wait time for an ambulance in Australia is 10 minutes, this can be longer during peak periods, and particularly in regional areas. Performing CPR can be physically and emotionally demanding, but it’s important to keep providing the intervention until paramedics arrive. Time is a major factor in the event of Sudden Cardiac Arrest. For every minute that passes without intervention, the chance of survival decreases by around 10%. Sadly, as many as 9 in 10 people who experience an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, won’t survive, but early CPR and defibrillation can be lifesaving.
St John Ambulance Australia’s National Training Manager, Mark Molloy who is also a paramedic in the ACT Ambulance Service, explains the importance, “Research into survivability of Out of Hospital Cardiac Arrests increasingly shows the vital impact that early recognition of an event and quality CPR, has in the chain of survival. The steps of which include, early recognition of cardiac arrest, calling for an ambulance, administration of CPR with a focus on quality chest compressions, defibrillation if needed, and eventually advanced resuscitation and post-cardiac care by medical professionals.”
Mr Molloy further highlights that in this case, by rotating the duty of CPR, Richard, Esther and David would have been able to continue effective intervention for longer, as they waited for paramedics to arrive.
St John Ambulance Australia stresses that anyone can develop the knowledge and skills to provide CPR, but that the number of people in the Australian community who hold current first aid training qualifications, are still worryingly low, despite the clear benefits. A recent survey issued by St John did find that those who have undertaken first aid training in the past three years were significantly more confident in their ability to provide first aid during an emergency situation (74% compared to 31%).
In this incident, NSW Ambulance were able to administer emergency medical aid on scene and to find a heart rhythm. Soon the patient was breathing and taken to hospital. The outcome was positive and the family man survived. Medical professionals and the man’s family both attributed this survival directly to the actions of Richard, Esther and David.
“While it was a long time to be performing CPR, it was then all over in a rush, and we were back inside as a family, wondering whether he would make a full recovery. Sadly, I’ve been in situations where it hasn’t always worked out, so it was great to hear from the family the next day that he was ok. They invited us over for drinks to say thanks.”
Formal recognition through the St John Save a Life Awards
At Government House on Friday 10 November, Superintendent Breiner, Mrs Breiner and Constable Quick, were each formally honored with a St John Save a Life Award, presented by their Excellencies the Hon. General David Hurley AC DSC KStJ (Retd) and Mrs Linda Hurley CStJ.
These awards administered by St John Ambulance Australia, celebrate the actions of those who have used first aid to save or sustain the life of another person. All recipients have been nominated by their peers or a member of the community, and have shown how First Aid skills can be the difference between life and death in an emergency situation.
St John Ambulance Australia CEO, Brendan Maher, acknowledged why the Save a Life Awards are so special, “We are so pleased to have a way to honor these upstanding community members, whose exemplary efforts mean that someone is alive today. By highlighting the importance of first aid in everyday situations, we hope to encourage others to take action. The first step is learning basic first aid, and we see that as a life skill everyone should have.”
Richard reiterates this when he talks about the experiences and thoughts he and Esther have had after the event. While he has been humbly grateful to accept the award, he is quick to point out that the real value is in the life they have saved.
“My advice to others is to just do something. You have to have the willingness to have a go if you want to give that person a chance to live. If you do nothing in the event of a sudden cardiac arrest, there is an almost certainty that person will die. If you take action, whether it’s calling for help, or starting CPR, you are giving that person a chance. The fact that this happened in a suburban yard, to an everyday family, means it can happen to anyone. We all need to be ready.”
The profound and lasting impacts of saving a human life
The experience has gone on to have a profound but positive impact on the Breiner Family. Esther was so buoyed and inspired, she is now pursuing a career in a support role within the ACT Ambulance Service, in the couple’s hometown of Canberra. Richard is also using his experience to promote positive change in his community.He has since worked with ACT Policing to ensure that around 60 local police vehicles are equipped with Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs). A move St John Ambulance says is important - encouraging all emergency service vehicles to be equipped with defibrillators.
When asked what his biggest takeaway is, Richard speaks poignantly of the value of human life. “It’s a tremendous privilege to be able to offer someone the gift of living with your own hands. I’ve often thought about what might have happened if we hadn’t intervened… the impact not just on the person, but on their family and friends and all around them. I feel good that we were able to help someone have a future.”
“I’ve been on duty and seen a lot of things, and I am proud of what I have achieved in my career and in my family life, but I think when I look back, this was a particularly defining moment. This just stands out as something special.”
St John Ambulance Australia wishes to acknowledge the 2023 Recipients of the St John Save a Life Awards:
Mrs Esther Breiner
Superintendent Richard Breiner, ACT Policing
Senior Constable David Quick, New South Wales Policing