Expert: What to do in an emergency when minutes matter

Cardiac arrests, opioid overdoses, mental health crises, and bleeding emergencies sound like the plot lines for your favorite medical TV drama, but the reality is they happen to people every day. You never know if and when a medical emergency is going to happen, so it’s best to be prepared for anything.

Even in the best circumstances, EMS can be several minutes away. Basic emergency information empowers bystanders to help make a difference immediately when minutes matter.

Cardiac Events

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating or becomes extremely irregular. This disrupts the flow of blood to vital organs, leaving victims with only a few minutes to survive if there isn’t immediate intervention. If you find someone who cannot breathe, is gasping for air, or is unresponsive, they may be experiencing a cardiac event. 

In cardiac arrest, getting the heart to beat and pump blood is essential to save heart muscle and preserve life. Begin hands-only CPR immediately and call 911. If you don’t know CPR, the 911 dispatcher can help talk you through it until first responders arrive. If you’re in a public space, try to locate an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) and follow its instructions. This device can help measure the heart’s rhythm and deliver a shock if needed all while giving clear and audible instructions. If an AED is not available, continue chest compressions until help arrives. Even if an AED is available, continuing chest compressions and effective CPR is critical.

Opioid Overdoses

If someone is experiencing an overdose, they may seem extremely sleepy or “out of it” but still respond to stimuli, breathe slowly or shallowly, have blue fingertips or lips, or have small pupils. They may also be completely unresponsive.

If you believe the person is experiencing an overdose, call 911 for help, roll the person on their side to help clear their airway, and administer Narcan if available. When emergency responders arrive, be prepared to help them by answering any questions they may have.

Mental Health Crises

No two mental health crises are exactly alike, but there are common factors or significant stressors that may contribute to a crisis. A few examples include trauma, loss, and financial hardship. In addition, feeling overwhelmed or having uncontrollable thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are also important to recognize as contributions to mental health crises. 

There are five steps outlined by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline to help someone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts or actions.

  1. Ask – Just by asking “are you thinking about suicide or self-harm?” helps to let the person know you’re willing to help or talk about the subject in an accepting way. 
  2. Be There – Be present emotionally by actively listening to them and physically if possible.
  3. Help Keep Them Safe – Ensure the safety of the person. Knowing if any steps that have been taken by the at-risk person can tell you how severe the situation is.
  4. Help Them Connect – Helpful resources are out there. 988 should be dialed in emergencies, but communities offer additional support, mental health professionals, and other programs.
  5. Follow Up – Make sure they are okay and that they are still connected with the previously mentioned resources. 

Uncontrollable Bleeding

Uncontrolled bleeding accounts for most preventable trauma deaths – 35% of all pre-hospital deaths are due to blood loss. Call 911 and while help is on the way, try to locate the source of the bleed. It could occur in multiple places that are not easily visible; it’s important to check everywhere. Look out for continuous bleeding, large-volume bleeding, and the pooling of blood. Cover the injury with gauze or cloth and apply pressure until help arrives. Do not hesitate to apply a tourniquet if simple direct pressure does not stop the bleeding. 

UPMC launched Minutes Matter to provide community members with access to basic emergency information and education about life-saving interventions. Find more in-depth information on what to do in emergencies as well as what resources are available in the community for training for CPR, Stop the Bleed, drug overdose and mental health first aid by visiting

Jeffrey Myers, D.O., is affiliated with UPMC Emergency Services in Williamsport and is the medical director for Susquehanna Regional EMS, UPMC’s EMS team in Wellsboro, and the LTS Regional EMS Council.


  • On the PULSE

    On the PULSE is an online media outlet in Northcentral, Pennsylvania. We specialize in in-depth journalism, human interest content and video features. Our mission is to build engagement in community through local news.

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On the PULSE

On the PULSE is an online media outlet in Northcentral, Pennsylvania. We specialize in in-depth journalism, human interest content and video features. Our mission is to build engagement in community through local news.