How to save a life

How our story turned into a novel with a CPR message

The worst moment of our lives happened half an hour into Halloween.

 A noise that sounded like snoring woke me up – but when I tried to nudge my partner to turn over, he didn’t respond at all. Within seconds, I was calling 999 and within a couple of minutes, I was giving him CPR.

My partner had suffered a cardiac arrest, with no warning. And – after an agonising 26 minutes ‘down’ – his heart was restarted by a second shock from a defibrillator.

He was asleep when it happened – and when he woke up from an induced coma on 1 November, he couldn’t understand why family and friends were at the hospital. He had no idea how lucky he’d been when the survival rates for out of hospital cardiac arrest are below 10%.

A Lifesavers Perspective

But for me, it was very different.

Every moment of that night was so vivid – and the effects stayed with me for years.

At first, I felt euphoric, almost heroic. He’d come through and would leave the hospital only ten days later, with an ICD in his chest. I hadn’t panicked and had given good enough CPR, even though my only experience was a first aid course years previously.

Yet as time passed, I became obsessed with what could have gone wrong – if I hadn’t woken up, if I had frozen and been unable to give CPR. I had flashbacks and insomnia – and when I did sleep, often had nightmares about the incident.

When SCA UK was created, a year or so after my partner’s arrest, I discovered I was not alone – many family members and bystanders have experienced similar flashbacks. Yet my own GP couldn’t see why I’d be suffering when the outcome was so positive.

After the initial shock, I knew I wanted to spread the word.

But how?

A Novel Approach

I am a novelist – a storyteller from childhood, someone who worked in TV and journalism telling real life stories before I became a fiction author. And I know that the most powerful way to get across important messages is through stories.

My partner is much more private than me – he hates social media and fuss, and would definitely not want to talk publicly. And for me, having worked in factual storytelling, I knew that often fiction can tell deeper truths – allowing us to be more honest and direct about feelings.

So I began to write a new novel.

The Right Story

I am usually a fast writer, but this time I struggled to find the right way to tell the story. In fact, it took me five years to write the book. Yet once I found the right story, many of my passions came together – my desire for more people to learn CPR, my mum’s stories of life as a young nurse, and a love of medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and Casualty.  

I decided to begin my story at the millennium, where a 17-year-old footballer is enjoying a kickabout minutes before midnight, in my home city of Brighton. When he collapses, two former school classmates are close by, and both want to become doctors. But one freezes while one gives CPR – and the 18 minutes before Joel’s heart restarts will affect their lives for the next 18 years.

I structured the book’s events around the chain of survival – the steps that help maximise the chances of cardiac arrest patients having the same positive outcome as my partner has.

I spoke to many survivors and their partners in my research, and am very grateful to Paul at SCA UK and to Dr Tom Keeble and Chris Solomons for reading parts of the book.

Therapeutic Writing

I’m a big fan of therapeutic writing – and would advise anyone suffering trauma to research the benefits (this is a great place to begin). But creating a novel that will entertain and inform readers is a different skill. The book, How to Save a Life, focuses on the emotional dramas my characters face – and I would certainly hope no one in real life would suffer quite as many ups and downs as they do. There are also some scenes that survivors and their families might find challenging. 

The CPR message is strong – many early readers have been inspired to take a course. We even have an expert from Resuscitation Council UK at the online launch to give a quick overview of the basics. And we’ve also been sharing photographs of survivors taken at the SCA UK conference to raise awareness of the real-life stories of those who’ve had a second chance.

How to Save a Life is being published all over the world including the UK, US, Australia Germany and Italy. Publishing a novel is a strange and nerve-wracking experience, especially when it’s so personal. In the weeks before publication, my memories have felt overwhelming again at times. But as my partner reminds me, if only one reader goes on to learn CPR as a result, then it will have been more than worth it.

Online Launch

If you’d like to attend the book’s online launch that is taking place on Wednesday 26th May at 6:30 pm you can register for free at Crowdcast.

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