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After a frightening moment, her life was saved

This is the touching story of Marc R. Côté, a Red Cross first aid instructor, who saved the life of a colleague who was choking. Would you have known what to do?

I would like to share the emotions and fear I felt when I responded to a life-threatening emergency on July 30, 2013, around 5:30 p.m. Everything I am about to tell you lasted no longer than 20 seconds.

I was eating dinner in the cafeteria at the Lac-Mégantic sports centre, where the Red Cross had deployed me following the tragedy on July 6, 2013.

Esther Laforte, Red Cross Disaster Response Lead in Lac-Mégantic, was sitting with me. Esther took a bite of her meal while talking and suddenly began choking on a piece of meat. She was unable to breathe, speak, or cough, and had both hands at her throat.

I was a Red Cross first aid instructor for over 25 years and a paramedic with Urgences-santé in Montréal and Laval for 32 years. Although I am now retired, I witnessed many emergencies in my day.

When Esther began choking, I knew immediately what was happening. I saw the distress in her eyes when she realized she couldn’t breathe. Her hands immediately went to her throat to communicate that something was blocking her airway, and she reached out towards me. Her face was rapidly turning purple and she leapt out of her seat.

In my head I saw the play-by-play of what would happen if the basic choking response procedure were to fail. I would call 911, get the first aid equipment and the automated external defibrillator (AED) that was by the stairs, ask someone to wait for the ambulance outside, move the tables to create a pathway for the paramedics and stretcher, and begin choking response procedure for someone who is unconscious.

I sprang into action. I put my arms around her waist, finding the spot where I needed to do the abdominal thrusts. I repeated them four or five times, even lifting Esther a few inches off the ground. When she tapped my forearm to signal it wasn’t working, I leaned her slightly forward and hit her between her shoulder blades with the palm of my hand. Her head tipped forward with the impact, but nothing came out of her mouth. Esther held her neck and I began again. After three more hits between her shoulder blades, she spat out the piece of meat and resumed breathing and speaking.  

She was going to be okay! 

Both of us were relieved and we embraced. Esther was breathing and the worst had been avoided. I advised her to go to the Lac-Mégantic hospital for a medical examination.

I was able to clear her airway using a variety of methods, which Canadian Red Cross first aid training teaches. The combination of two techniques was what made the difference. The event changed my life.

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