Give Me the Paddles and — Clear!

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Students in an adult CPR class work with AEDs and Little Annes

I don't know when it was that I stopped learning how to do things — as opposed to learning about things. So I decided to pick up a few new skills, starting with first aid, because lifesaving is the basis for all education. Can't learn when you're dead.

When one of the instructors of my Red Cross course in New York City goes around the room asking people why they signed up, most say they want to become first-aid instructors or emergency medical technicians. A Mike Tyson look-alike runs a gym and says he's concerned about his clients' cardiovascular health, which probably means he doesn't want to be sued when someone keels over on the treadmill. Two teenage girls sing out, in stereo, "We're in high school," which doesn't make sense — until you think of schools in places like Littleton and Paducah.

I thought my actual reason for being there would sound shallow: I want to learn to use a defibrillator because it's always supercool on "ER" when the doctor gets out the paddles and yells, "Clear!" Instead I say that I'm a new aunt and I don't want to kill my nephew. The instructor replies, "It's nice you're here, but next time you might want to sign up for Infant CPR." I joke that oh, my parents have one foot in the grave too, and then everyone looks sad and nods in sympathy.

My two Red Cross instructors are serious people, and I sense that they'd like me to stifle my inner class clown. But that's hard when we're watching instructional videos in which one bad actor plays a screaming fry cook who has been burned and another plays a man who carries a bunch of heavy stuff but refuses his co-worker's help. "That's OK, I've got it," he says — right before tripping down a hill. (That's when we learned how to construct a sling.)

We work our way through a booklet and illustrated skills cards along with the videos, practicing on one another and a dummy named Little Anne. She has a rougher day than I do: she chokes, stops breathing dozens of times and rarely has a pulse. The best way to learn practical things is through repetition, and we go through the procedure "check, call, care" — in which one checks an accident scene for safety, calls (or dispatches someone else to call) 911 and then ministers to the victim — countless times. Finally, an instructor tells me that I've restored Anne's breathing and that she has a pulse, and asks me what I do next. "Just hang?" I ask. She replies, "We call it monitoring, Sarah."

By midday, I know the proper way to clean up a blood spill. (With bleach.) I know the remedies for both conscious and unconscious choking, and how to self-administer the Heimlich maneuver (by leaning over the back of a chair). I know how to apply CPR. After a morning of vivid reminders of my mortality, the lunch break becomes an exercise in dread. For example, do I want to spend what may be the final hour of my life munching a Cobb salad and reading a book by Al Franken? I look down at my lunch and think, "Oh, my God, this bacon could congeal my arteries at any second, and have these people taken CPR?"

Education of any sort is supposed to make a student question the world and her place in it. But when I registered for the CPR class I thought of it as more like P.E. than Philosophy 101. And while it's true I will be sore the next morning from bending over Little Anne and pounding on her chest, I return from lunch for the afternoon defibrillator session with the kind of metaphysical panic I remember from the Nietzsche unit in freshman year.

The Automated Electronic Defibrillator segment is prefaced by a thought so personal and so chilling that my previous association with the shock machines as mere props in the hands of George Clooney vanishes forever. The instructor tells us that for every minute a victim of cardiac arrest awaits defibrillation, his chances of survival decrease 10%. She pauses long enough for us to do the math — probably dead after 10 minutes. Then she ominously leaves the phrase "In New York City..." hanging in the air. "There is a less than 1% survival rate for cardiac arrest in New York City." Now my fellow students and I are dumbfounded. I vow to never complain about Manhattan siren noise again. And I raise my hand to ask how much AED machines cost. (Between $1,000 and $1,500, I'm told.)

I'm immediately a defibrillator convert, believing every workplace and public space should have one and train its employees in its use. Once we get out the machines and start practicing, I am even more convinced. The machine decides whether the victim needs a shock and speaks its instructions aloud. It is so effective and easy to use that even the actor playing the ditsy fry cook could save a life with it. And now I could too.

Sarah Vowell, a regular contributor to public radio's "This American Life," will write each month about her continuing education

To find a CPR course, contact your local Red Cross or go to