Ah, ah, ah, ah! The Bee Gees refrain that's saving lives

On Tuesday, April 19, 2011, at 5.24pm, Angus MacLeay died.

He was 51, married to Sue and a father of two children. It wasn’t just his family who adored him; as the Rector at St Nicholas Church in Sevenoaks, Kent, he was beloved by his parishioners.

During a meeting in the church hall, he suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed. The electrical circuitry that organises the heart’s contractions malfunctioned, and his heart stopped beating. He was, in raw human terms, dead.

Experts say you should follow the rhythm of the 'Ah, ah, ah, ah' refrain in the Bee Gees' hit Stayin' Alive when giving chest compressions

Experts say you should follow the rhythm of the 'Ah, ah, ah, ah' refrain in the Bee Gees' hit Stayin' Alive when giving chest compressions

Yet two weeks later, he was back to normal, enjoying life with his family, and meeting with church leaders.

Angus came back to life not because of an amazing expensive medical breakthrough, but because of a simple lesson in first aid. He collapsed in front of a colleague who called for help.

Within seconds his son Jamie, 18, and friend, Michael Dormandy, who had been working in offices below, arrived.

Both had been trained in how to do cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR), also known as chest compressions.

Jamie had been taught at school when he was ten, Michael had just completed a first aid course.

Although they had only a few hours’ training, it’s all they needed to know instinctively what to do.

They took it in turns, pushing down on the chest in a continuous cycle — experts say you should follow the rhythm of the ‘Ah, ah, ah, ah’ refrain in the Bee Gees’ hit Stayin’ Alive — till the ambulance arrived.

The compressions take over the function of the heart, keeping blood pumping and getting oxygen to vital tissues, including the heart itself.

Within five minutes, the paramedics arrived. They put a defibrillator on Angus’s chest and shocked his heart back into a normal rhythm and it started beating again.

Without the chest compressions, it is unlikely the paramedics would have been able to get the heart restarted.

Each year more than 30,000 people's hearts stop due to a cardiac arrest

Each year more than 30,000 people's hearts stop due to a cardiac arrest

When Angus arrived at A&E where I work as a consultant, he was unconscious.

Although his heart was working, he was at risk of brain damage.

To protect his brain, we cooled his body to 33c by laying sheets made of synthetic ice over his chest. We do this to reduce the oxygen demands of the brain and cut the production of free radicals that damage its cells.

Two weeks after his cardiac arrest, Angus was back home.

Each year, as with Angus, more than 30,000 people’s hearts stop due to a cardiac arrest.

But, sadly, most do not get chest compressions by members of the public, as many are not sure what to do or, as a recent survey revealed, they fear having to do ‘mouth to mouth’ resuscitation.

So, in the UK, fewer than ten per cent of cardiac arrest patients survive — the other 27,000 die.

In the hope of reducing this shocking statistic, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has launched a campaign to tell people it’s not ‘rescue breaths’ that matter — it’s the rhythmic chest compressions that are important (although if it’s a child who’s collapsed, then the breaths are crucial, as it is lack of oxygen that proves fatal for them).

Another simple way of ensuring everyone knows how to do this technique would be to teach it at school. Many countries do it, from Norway to Austria to parts of the U.S..

Does it help In Arizona, where everyone has been taught the techniques at school and you need it to get a driving licence, survival rates for cardiac arrest are 250 per cent better than ours.

It’s easy to teach. Professor Douglas Chamberlin, who helped introduced the paramedic ambulance service into the UK, says: ‘Children can do resuscitation techniques from the age of about ten. And they rarely forget.

'It is about the best investment we can make to save unnecessary premature deaths.’

It’s not a difficult skill to learn. If someone shows no signs of life, call an ambulance and press on the centre of their chest so it goes down around two inches. Do this at a rate of 100 presses a minute until help arrives.

The Resuscitation Council and the BHF have started a campaign for all UK children to be taught emergency life-saving skills, including chest compressions.

Dr Andrew Lockey, of Resuscitation Council UK, says: ‘More than 600,000 children are set to leave secondary school each year — that’s more than half a million pairs of hands to help save someone’s life.’

The Government agrees. Education Secretary Michael Gove, stated last year: ‘It is important . . . we do everything we can to ensure life-saving and first aid skills are part of what happens in our schools.’

As Angus told me: ‘Without Michael and my son learning resuscitation, I wouldn’t be here today.’

Two hours out of 14 years in school could be the most valuable lesson of their life.


You can sign a petition for teaching CPR in schools at bhf.org.uk/els. The St John Ambulance (sja.org.uk) and the British Heart Foundation (bhf.org.uk) also organise good courses.