Every family or survival group needs a medic, and at any point in time, he or she may encounter a life-threatening medical emergency. In normal times, the goal is to get emergency services on the scene and the victim to a modern medical facility as quickly as possible. When trouble hits, however, the family medic becomes the end of the line and must act quickly to prevent a tragedy.

The classic example of a medical emergency would be when a person collapses. This can happen for various reasons, including life-threatening cardiac events like heart attacks, airway obstructions that prevent air passage, head trauma and even simple fainting episodes.


A heart attack is caused by a blockage in blood flow to a portion of the heart. It’s also known as a “myocardial infarction.” A heart attack can be mild or severe, depending on the amount of heart muscle that loses oxygenation. Common symptoms are chest, left arm and jaw pain or tightness, along with shortness of breath and lightheadedness.

What To Do: Immediately have the victim chew an adult aspirin or four baby aspirins, as well as any cardiac medications like nitroglycerin that they might have stockpiled. Loosen any tight clothing. Place the person in the “W” position, semi-recumbent at about 75 degrees with the knees bent. Keep the victim as calm as possible to decrease further strain on the victim’s ailing heart.

If a person collapses and there’s no pulse, begin CPR immediately. If you aren’t trained in CPR, you should begin chest compressions by placing the heel of your hand, palm down, over the lower half of the breastbone at the level of the nipple. Place your other hand on top and interlace your fingers. Keeping yourself positioned directly above your hands (arms straight), press downward in such a fashion that the breastbone (also called the sternum) is compressed about 2 inches. Allow the chest to recoil completely and repeat at a rate of at least 100 per minute. Do this until help arrives or a pulse returns. If you are certified in CPR, add rescue breaths.


When a foreign object, usually food, goes down the wrong way, it can cause an airway obstruction. As a result, the victim can’t breathe. The lack of oxygen intake will soon cause unconsciousness and death if rapid action isn’t taken. This event is easily identified due to the universal response of becoming agitated and pointing towards or grabbing the throat.

What To Do: Perform the Heimlich maneuver. Get behind the victim and make a fist with your right hand. Place your fist above the belly button and below the breastbone. Then wrap your left arm around the patient and grasp the fist with your left hand. Make sure your arms are positioned just below the rib cage. With a forceful upward motion, thrust your fist abruptly into the abdomen.

If your patient loses consciousness and you are unable to dislodge the obstruction, place the victim flat on their back and straddle them across the hips. Open their mouth and make sure that the object can’t be removed manually. If not, give several upward abdominal thrusts with the heels of your palms locked one above the other. Check the oral cavity again. You may have partially dislodged the foreign object. 


A person may collapse as a result of trauma to the skull, causing loss of consciousness. The most common injury, a concussion, occurs when the brain is shaken due to the force of the blow. A victim of a concussion may appear dazed, behave strangely and may not remember the events immediately prior to the injury. Although you may note a painful bump on the head or bleeding from a scalp laceration, neither is necessary for a head injury to be dangerous.

What To Do: Stop any bleeding with direct pressure. Apply ice packs for 20 or 30 minutes every two hours to areas of swelling. Give acetaminophen for pain but avoid aspirin or ibuprofen, which can increase the risk of hemorrhage. Observe the patient closely for 48 hours. Difficulty waking, worsening mental status or headache, vomiting and slurred speech are all signs that might indicate intracranial bleeding. Watch for bruising around the eyes and ears. This may be a sign for a life-threatening skull fracture.

It will be a challenge for a medic to deal with many of these issues in austere settings. With knowledge and supplies, however, many emergencies can be dealt with successfully.

This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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