emergencyEmergencies happen every day. For example, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 805,000 people in the United States have a heart attack each year which means someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds in this country. Last year about 5,000 choking- related deaths occurred in the U.S. In 2023 there were around 1,000 flash floods which left many people surrounded by high water and trapped in their cars.

In an emergency when we’re around other people, it is obvious what to do—call for help and have someone call 9-1-1. But how do you keep yourself from being a statistic when you are alone? What should you do in life-threatening emergencies when no one’s around to help? Here are some life-saving tips about what to do in five common emergency situations.

 Heart Attack

The most common symptom of a heart attack is a feeling of pressure or a constricting sensation in the chest, but the pressure may also involve the neck, jaw, arms, upper abdomen or back. However, many patients simply describe it as a discomfort. “When surviving a heart attack alone, follow your instincts. If symptoms frighten you, get them evaluated quickly,” says Shawn A. Gregory, M.D., a cardiologist with the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute.

What emergency procedures should you take to survive a heart attack alone? myvanderbilthealth.com advises following these steps:

 Call 911

“If you think you’re experiencing a heart attack, the most important thing to do is to get emergency medical help. Anything that interferes with getting assistance should be avoided. This assistance should be professional and not, for example, asking a friend or loved one to drive you to the hospital. The ambulance service can provide immediate therapy and begin the process of making the diagnosis.”

Stay Calm and Rest

“Exertion can worsen a heart attack, so rest and try to relax, even though it’s a scary situation. Remind yourself that you are playing it on the safe side and getting help as soon as possible.”

Chew Aspirin

“As long as finding aspirin doesn’t delay calling for help or require much activity, take 300 mg. This roughly correlates with four baby aspirins (81 mg each) or one regular aspirin (325 mg). Chew the tablets to get them into the bloodstream fast.”

Prepare For First Responders

“As long as it doesn’t require exertion, make sure to keep your doors unlocked and pets in a closed room. Additionally, locate your list of medications and allergies.

Lastly, Dr. Gregory advises against “cough CPR.” Inaccurate social media posts have made the claim that forced coughing intervals can induce cardiopulmonary resuscitation. “A heart-attack patient may actually worsen their condition by trying cough CPR. This would likely increase stress on the heart,” he said. “For this and several other reasons, health-care providers don’t perform standard CPR on conscious patients either. Therefore, cough CPR should be avoided unless you are instructed to do so by a health-care professional.”


What to do when you’re alone and choking?  “Don’t panic,” advises  Roy Shaw, a certified paramedic, writing for pcrpro.com.  Here are the steps to take to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on yourself when you’re alone and choking:

  1. “Call 911 and leave the phone off the hook.

The dispatcher will send someone to help even if they hear no talking on the other end.

  1. Try to cough up the object.

If you can cough or make any sound, your airway is not completely blocked. Try clearing the object with forceful coughing. Do not try to drink anything as this can compound the problem.

  1. Perform the Self-Heimlich.

This is essentially the same Heimlich maneuver that you would perform on another person, but instead, you will perform it on yourself. Make a fist with one hand and put the thumb side between your belly button and rib cage. Place your other hand on top of that. Push as hard as you can in a quick motion straight into your abdomen. This will put pressure on the bottom of your diaphragm, which will compress your lungs and force the remaining air to push up through your trachea, hopefully with enough force to dislodge the object.

  1. Seek medical help.

Once you dislodge the obstruction, you should go to the emergency room or urgent care. The Heimlich maneuver can cause internal damage and you should be examined for any complications. The doctor will also check your lungs to be sure you have not aspirated any foreign substance into your lungs which could cause infection or other complications.”

Sinking in Water if You’re Caught in Your Car

Nearly half of flash flood deaths are vehicle-related, the New York Times reports. The first (and best) advice to avoid being caught in rising water is to never ignore barriers near flooded streets or roads. “Not only is it difficult to gauge water depth and road conditions, but just 12 inches of water can float your car and 18 inches can carry off your SUV or pickup truck,” the newspaper says.

Thehealth.com advises that “if you suddenly become immersed (say, you drive off a bridge or into a lake or river), roll down the windows as soon as you can. Yes, it allows water to rush in, but that’s a good thing. It equalizes the pressure, so you can open the door or swim out the window. Do it quickly, though, as the electrical systems on automatic windows can get damaged and stop working when wet.” If the windows won’t roll down break a side window. (Side windows are easier to break than the windshield.)  Use an escape tool, if you have one, or use the metal rods of your headrest as a ram. Then climb on the roof of your car and call for help.  The New York Times says “People who stay with their cars survive at much higher rates than those who abandon them, simply because it’s easier for emergency services to spot a vehicle than a person. To make yourself more noticeable, you can also turn on your hazard lights, activate your car’s alarm with your key fob and, if possible, honk the horn.”

Trapped in Burning Building American Red Cross

If your house or office building catches on fire and you seem to be trapped, don’t panic. “In any emergency situation, the difference between survivors and non-survivors is that survivors remain calm and fight through their fear to find out, ‘What can I do?’” says thehealth.com.

Here’s what to do: Try to get out. Get low to the ground, where you can breathe and see better then crawl outside as fast as possible. Don’t stop until you’re well away from the fire. Then call for help.

If closed doors or door handles are warm or smoke blocks your primary escape route, try to find a second way out. Never open doors that are warm to the touch. The American Red Cross advises that “if smoke, heat, or flames block [all] your exit routes, stay in the room with doors closed.  Place a wet towel under the door and call the fire department or 9-1-1. Open a window and wave a brightly colored cloth or flashlight to signal for help.”

Bleeding from a Cut

“If you cut yourself badly, for example with a knife, your first priority is stopping the bleeding,” declares lifehacker.com. “If there is a large object embedded in the wound, don’t take it out yourself. Apply pressure with a sterile bandage if you have one, or the cleanest available material if not (such as a piece of clothing). Elevating the wound may help.

“[If] you’re gushing blood, tourniquets, which every Boy Scout learned how to make back in the day, are now a first-aid absolute last resort,” theheatlh.com states. “If you have a cut on your upper leg and you put pressure on it, you’re just closing that vessel. But if you put a tourniquet on, you’re going to close the vessels to the entire leg. You could lose your foot.” According to the American Red Cross, the only time to use a tourniquet is when applying pressure to the wound with both hands won’t stem the flow. 



Sean D. Cuddigan
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SSA and VA Disability Attorney in Omaha, Nebraska