Liam Farrell: Oh death where is thy sting? It's CPR

I recall a kinder, simpler time.

Amoxicillin was considered suspiciously new-fangled, peace, love and rock and roll were the aspiration of a generation, everybody hadn't yet appeared naked in a fundraising calendar (though let's be honest, we know fundraising is just a handy excuse, some people like getting their kit off in public). Life was simple - you were born, you lived, you died.

But all is changed, utterly changed; now it's more like you are born, you live, you die, you get CPR, maybe it works and you live again with or without brain damage, you die again, you get CPR again, this time you're really dead, probably exhausted and with a certain sense of relief.

It seems CPR has become the default treatment for everyone who dies; unless we explicitly forbid it, we will all leave this world the same way.

No-one is allowed to die peacefully anymore; instead we'll have some big sweaty guy pounding on our chest, tubes rammed down our throat, multiple needle jabs, our shirts ripped off and electric shocks administered, and all of it a very public spectacle, as an audience has become traditional.

CPR was introduced around 1960, when a team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, US, reported its experience with 20 patients on whom they used a new technique, closed-chest cardiac massage.

CPR has been a tremendous advance, helped significantly by being so media-friendly; what could be more praiseworthy and melodramatic as resurrecting the dead? Medical soaps just love CPR, although their success rates are totally unrealistic.

Also unrealistic are their patients; usually young, attractive, TV-friendly victims, who have suffered some common, everyday incident like a lightning strike. In reality, most CPR is performed on older patients, with a success rate of zero to 18%.

CPR is not risk-free; it can lead to prolonged suffering, neurological damage and an undignified demise. So with a view to my own inevitable death, I'm having a tattoo on my sternum: 'Before you press here for CPR, think: is it worth it?'

  • Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Follow him on Twitter @drlfarrell.

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