Every morning, Anna Whelan, a first-year medical student, runs along Lake Michigan. On Tuesday, August 21, while on the lakefront, she noticed two people kneeling over a man lying on the ground.
“When I first saw him, I wasn’t sure if I should go over because two people were already working on him, but I figured I should at least ask if they needed help,” she said.
After sprinting over, Whelan recounts their conversation, “One man said, ‘I called 911. This man is a nurse and can’t find a pulse.’ I stated that I was trained in CPR and was a medical student and immediately I found myself in charge of the situation,” she said.
She checked the man, again, for a pulse and found nothing. His skin was clammy and white.
“He was having aspirate breaths every 20 seconds or so, but it didn’t sound like real breathing. So I began compressions,” Whelan said.
She showed the nurse how to position the neck and give breaths, while she continued compressions. A biker stopped to help, and Whelan showed him how to do compressions since her arms were exhausted. She coached the nurse and the biker by counting out the compressions aloud and giving the correct breathing tempo.
“Finally, the EMTs arrived and took the man into the ambulance, where they had a defibrillator,” she said. “I never thought I would see this out of the hospital, especially after just a few days of school. I also never thought that I would be in charge of a group of people who were all twice my age.”
Whelan was first trained in CPR at the age of 15, when she began lifeguarding at a beach in her hometown in Massachusetts.
“I had been lucky enough never to have had to use my training before,” she said. “I took action because I was trained and they needed my help. I was nervous, but I knew that doing something was better than doing nothing. I was upset afterward because at first I did not know what his final outcome was and I felt like a failure. My college mentor talked to me and said no matter what, I improved his chances and that it was a good thing I acted, so I felt better about it.”
That mentor, Jennifer Strople, MD, assistant professor in pediatrics, said she looks forward to participating in the medical students’ education and playing an active role in their professional development.
“I did not anticipate that my first email from a student would describe an experience resuscitating a man in cardiac arrest,” Strople said. “I was truly impressed and amazed at how Anna handled herself. In an adrenaline filled situation, she applied what she had recently learned and used this knowledge to teach others in an effort to save a life. I know that as the years move forward I will see many more examples of students actively using their skills and knowledge as they progress from medical students to young physicians.”
As a first-year medical student, Whelan and her peers participated in Introduction to the Professions Week before the school year officially started. During the week, the students practiced skills and teamwork exercises that would help prepare them for a successful career in medicine.
Whelan attributes some of what she learned in that week to helping her in the emergency situation.
“What was important in the situation was teamwork and my ability to work with those people around me,” she said. “Teamwork was something that was really stressed during Intro to the Professions Week. As I coached the two men through CPR, it was really important to communicate, which was something else that was heavily covered during the week.”
Since the encounter, Whelan has learned that the medics were able to revive the man, who is recovering in the hospital.
“I am reassured in my choice to become a doctor. Not just because I helped save a life, but also because I felt like I was a useful team member and had a useful skill,” she said.