Resolution Road

April 2nd, 2010 by Laura van Straaten

How one New Yorker’s brush with an emergency event inspired her to learn CPR, and then create an entire program — “CPR to Go” — designed to make learning life-saving techniques as easy as possible.

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The Responsibility Project

Every year for as long as I can remember, I make New Year’s resolutions. But I rarely ever make good on them.

Last year was different.

Usually on January 1, still fizzy-headed from Champagne, I make a long list of goals that bizarrely mirror my year-round self-criticisms.

On January 1, 2009, I set one specific goal.

Weeks prior, walking to the grocery just after a snowstorm, I came upon a Good Samaritan giving CPR to a total stranger. The recipient was stretched out in the crosswalk on West End Avenue, his head near a slushy curb. I watched with a growing crowd of gawkers as chest compression pressed the ill man a little deeper into the snow. Minutes passed, but no one relieved the Good Samaritan, who was sweating in the cold from the effort.

The EMTs arrived. Once they’d loaded the ill man into the ambulance, the hunkiest of the EMTs made his way back to the crowd and asked, “Which of you tried to save this guy?” The idle among us stepped back. The red-faced Good Samaritan stepped forward as the EMT looked him brightly in the eye and reached his strong hand out for a shake. 

It made this huge impression on me: we are responsible for one other.

I decided that next time I did not want merely to idle among the bystanders. My New Year’s resolution: learn CPR.

As 2009 began, I started researching classes. Like many people in the country, I found myself heading into the year “underemployed.” I had freelance and consulting gigs, but the media and technology company where I had been VP and General Manager had recently shuttered its New York offices. So I was grateful that my New Year’s resolution might give me something to do with the extra time on my hands.

I soon discovered the New York Fire Department’s mobile CPR training program, which conducts free trainings anywhere in the city, as long as you can guarantee that 15 or more people will show up and have a big empty space for people to squat on the floor and practice on the blow up mannequins. That works in schools and large companies — but I can barely get my own friends to RSVP for a dinner party, and my apartment is too small. But, I thought, an empty exercise studio would be perfect, and you would get an automatic quorum. Then I wondered whether health clubs, yoga studios, dance schools, and martial arts facilities might host these free FDNY classes routinely to the public at large during off hours. With all the foot traffic that fitness centers see, and the and the promotion they could do, filling a quorum would be easy,

I reached out to an acquaintance that works at City Hall. It turns out that CPR training has been an important health initiative for Mayor Bloomberg since 2004, when a study showed New York City lagging behind other cities in cardiac survival rates. Before I knew it, I — a regular citizen, who didn’t know the difference between a lieutenant, a chief, and commissioner — was leading meetings with staff from the Fire Department and NYC Service, a program that was started in 2009 to encourage volunteerism. I also reached out to fitness companies in search of a pioneer partner for the program I envisioned.

On January 6 of this year, “CPR to Go” got its official start. Any member of the public can sign up online for free CPR training at New York Sports Club locations in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. I looked at the first three months as a pilot period, to gauge how well the program worked and what might need tweaking. Even before the period was up, however, all the classes were filled to capacity! Now I’m working with New York Sports Club’s parent company to expand “CPR to Go” to Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. I’ve organized other good-samaritan projects: I created a reading exchange for used books in the laundry room of my huge apartment building, and enlisted my neighbors and landlord to host a “lobby sale” (what non-city dwellers call a yard or garage sale) to raise nearly $7,000 to help former employees of the Windows of the World restaurant that was destroyed in the tragedy of September 11, 2001. But if CPR to Go takes off, it will be the biggest thing I’ve ever done.

I know there are many other talented folks who woke up fizzy-headed on New Year’s Day wanting to burrow back into the bed — not from too much Champagne, but from a dismal sense of their professional prospects during a recession, or from a sense that, somehow, they could contribute more than they do. Many of us have good ideas about things that could or should exist in our communities. Those who only have the time to take a free CPR class should do so, but those who have the wherewithal should take the initiative and make something happen. It will mean leaving the house to do it, but for me, traipsing six blocks through the snow to the grocery has led to one of the most gratifying projects I have worked on. 

My New Year’s resolution has taken me into worlds I had never seen before –the chambers of City Council, the Fire Department’s holiday party, the inner-workings of the fitness industry. Careerwise, I’m pretty much in the same boat I was a year ago, working some of the time and grateful for what I’ve been able to drum up. Maybe making good on my resolution will lead to a great new job or a new career entirely. Worst-case scenario: I am prepared to save your life. Soon, thousands of other people will be too.

Laura van Straaten is a former television producer and journalist for NBC, CNN, and PBS, and a contributing editor to The Daily Beast.