What Is the Psychological Cost of Performing CPR?

Matías A. Loewy

February 06, 2023

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — One year ago, as the sun was setting on a late fall day, Andrés Snitcofsky, a 40-year-old designer from Buenos Aires, Argentina, heard harrowing cries for help. It was the niece and the wife of one of his neighbors: a man in his 60s who the women had found "passed out" in the bedroom. While they were all waiting for the ambulance, Snitcofsky went over, tilted the man's head back, and confirmed that he wasn't breathing, that he wasn't choking. And then he started chest compressions, just like he'd learned in a CPR class he'd taken two decades earlier. "I did CPR for 5 minutes straight until a friend of the victim came in and asked me to stop, telling me that the man had probably been dead for 2 or 3 hours already. But I had no idea because I'd never seen a dead body before," Snitcofsky told Medscape's Spanish edition. A few minutes later, the ambulance arrived. The doctor confirmed that there was nothing more that could be done.

Snitcofsky went home. Nobody had asked for his name or address or phone number....And it wasn't because they already knew who he was. In fact, there wasn't any sort of relationship there. Snitcofsky had only known his neighbors by sight. His actions that day, however, "did not come without a cost. It took me weeks — months, actually — to put myself together again," he said. The things he saw, the things he heard, everything about that night played over and over in his head. "I had trouble sleeping. I would play out different scenarios in my head. I questioned myself. I second-guessed myself, criticized myself. It's like some taboo subject. There's no one to share the experience with, no one who gets it. But with time, I was able to process the event.

"For 2 months, I talked to my psychologist about it all," he continued. "That really helped me a lot. In addition to therapy, I reached out to a couple I know — they're both physicians — and to a firefighter who teaches CPR. Their insight and guidance allowed me to get to a point where I was able to understand that what I did was a good thing and that what I did was all that could have been done. But anyone who finds themselves in the position of having to do CPR — they're going to be affected in many, many ways. It goes beyond the euphoria of seeing a person come back to life. Of that, I'm quite certain."

We've all seen campaigns encouraging people to learn CPR and to be prepared if the need arises. But in training the public (and even healthcare professionals), not much, if anything, is said about the "collateral damage": the psychological and emotional consequences of carrying out the procedure. These especially come into play when you don't know whether the person survived, when your efforts weren't able to reverse the sudden cardiac arrest, or when the person you gave CPR to was a loved one — a case that may entail immediate therapeutic interventions to minimize or prevent the risk of suffering long-lasting trauma.

In May 2020, popular American activist and educator Kristin Flanary saw someone suffering cardiac arrest. She stepped in and started doing CPR. And she continued doing CPR...for 10 long minutes. The person she was trying to save was her 34-year-old husband, ophthalmologist and comedian Will Flanary. On Twitter, where she's known as Lady Glaucomflecken, Kristin recently shared the following message, putting the topic of CPR and automated external defibrillator training front and center.

"Yes, everyone should learn #CPRandAED. But if we are going to ask people to perform such a brutal task, it's imperative that we also provide them with the info and resources they need to process it mentally and emotionally. It's traumatic and life changing. It's irresponsible and unethical to ask people to help in such a brutal and traumatic way and then neglect to help them in return." In less than a month, the tweet has racked up over 200,000 views.

Doing One's Duty

There are many people who work to promote CPR and strengthen the other links in the chain of survival for out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrest, such as prompt access to and delivery of early defibrillation. According to them, any negative psychological impact of intervening is temporary and, when compared with the satisfaction of having done one's duty, quite insignificant — even if the efforts to save a person's life are not successful.

"In 99.9% of cases, people who have performed CPR feel a sense of satisfaction, even happiness, knowing that they've helped. The individuals I've spoken with, I've never heard any of them say that they felt worse after the event or that they needed to see a psychologist," said Mario Fitz Maurice, MD, director of the Arrhythmia Council of the Argentine Society of Cardiology and head of Electrophysiology at Rivadavia Hospital in Buenos Aires. He went on to tell Medscape, "Of course, some degree of fear, sadness, or melancholy can remain afterward. But it seems to me, and there are reports saying as much, that, in the end, what stands out in the person's mind is the fact that they tried to save a life. And for them, there's joy in knowing this."

Fitz Maurice, who is also the director of the National Arrhythmia Institute in Buenos Aires, pointed out that the kind of person who takes CPR classes "has a profile that's going to allow them to be psychologically involved; they're the caring person, the one who's ready and willing to help people." And he added that, at his hospital, if they can identify the individuals or first responders who have done CPR on a patient, the protocol is to always contact them to offer psychological care and assistance. "But in 99% of cases, they don't even understand why we're calling them, they're extremely happy to have taken part."

Some studies, though, paint a much different picture, one that shows that providing CPR can be emotionally challenging and have consequences in terms of one's family and work life. A qualitative study published in 2016 looked into the experiences of 20 lay rescuers in Norway — five were health educated — who had provided CPR to 18 out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) victims, 66% of whom survived. The time from experiencing the OHCA incident to participating in the interview ranged from 6 days to 13 years (median 5.5 years). Several participants reported the OHCA incident as a "shocking and terrifying" experience. Tiredness, exhaustion, confusion, and feeling alone about the OHCA experience were individual reactions that could vary in time from days to months. Anxiety and insomnia were also experienced following the incident.

Some lay rescuers described the influence on work and family life, and a few of them deep sorrow, even several years after the incident. Overall, they reported repetitive self-criticism regarding whether they could have carried out anything else to achieve a better outcome for the cardiac arrest victim. All of them wanted to be informed about the outcome. And four of the lay rescuers needed professional counseling to process the OHCA experience.

In 2020, another qualitative study was conducted, this time in Taiwan. There were nine participants, none of whom were health professionals. Each had provided initial CPR and defibrillation with AED in public locations. Event-to-interview duration was within 1 year and 1-2 years. The major findings from the study were the following:

  1. The lay rescuers possessed helping traits and high motivation.  

  2. The lay rescuers reported certain aspects of rescue reality that differed much from prior training and expectations, including difficulty in the depth of chest compression, and uncertainties in real emergency situations.

  3. The lay rescuers gained positive personal fulfillment in sharing their experience and receiving positive feedback from others, and were willing to help next time, although they experienced a short-term negative psychological impact from the event.

"Measures should be taken to increase [a] layperson's confidence and situation awareness, to reduce training-reality discrepancy, and to build up a support system to avoid negative psychological effects." This was the conclusion of the study team, which was led by Matthew Huei-Ming Ma, MD, PhD. A professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at National Taiwan University in Taipei, he is also on the board of directors of the Resuscitation Council of Asia.

Potential Trauma

In recalling his experience, Snitcofsky said, "The hardest part of it all was the moment that I stopped giving CPR, that moment of letting go. This became the image that kept coming back to me, the traumatic moment I hadn't thought about."

Psychiatrist Daniel Mosca, MD, is the founder and former president of the Argentine Society of Trauma Psychology. He is also the coordinator of the human factors team at the City of Buenos Aires Emergency Medical Care System. "Any event has the potential to be traumatic, all the more so when it's an event where you come face to face with death and uncertainty. But how a rescuer reacts will depend on their psychological makeup." Of the individuals who were held for months or years in the jungle as hostages of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, "only" half developed symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.

Mosca believes that a comment by Frank Ochberg, MD, speaks to this finding. "In many cases, peritraumatic symptoms are a normal person's normal response to an abnormal situation." For a lot of people who have found themselves having to perform CPR, the symptoms associated with the initial acute stress reaction will resolve on their own in 30-90 days. "But if this doesn't happen, and those symptoms persist, psychotherapeutic or pharmacological intervention will be necessary," he noted.

"In CPR classes, it would be good for the instructors to talk about the warning signs that people should look out for in themselves and their fellow rescuers. So, for example, insomnia, anxiety, a heightened state of alertness, feeling disconnected from reality," Mosca told Medscape.

"Another thing that can help rescuers is letting them know what happened to the person they gave CPR to. This way, they can get closure," suggested Manlio Márquez Murillo, MD, a cardiologist and electrophysiologist in Mexico. He is also the coordinator of the Alliance Against Sudden Cardiac Death at the Interamerican Society of Cardiology.

"Medical and nursing societies would have to develop a brief protocol or performance standard. The goal would be to ensure that rescuers are asked for their contact information and that someone gets in touch to debrief them and to offer them care. Next would come the treatment part, to resolve any remaining aftereffects," he told Medscape.

For example, a three-stage Lay Responder Support Model (LRSM) was developed and implemented as part of a lay responder support program established in 2014 by the Peel Regional Council in Ontario, Canada. The LRSM identifies and engages individuals who witnessed or participated directly or indirectly in an OHCA, inviting them to participate in a debriefing session facilitated by a trained practitioner. Held 24-48 hours post event, the debriefing allows lay responders to contextualize their reaction to the event. The conversation also serves as an opportunity for them to fully articulate their concerns, questions, and thoughts. The facilitator can communicate stress reduction techniques and address psychological first aid needs as they emerge. Approximately 1 week post event, a secondary follow-up occurs. If the lay responder communicates a continuing struggle with symptoms impacting and interfering with everyday life, the facilitator offers a coordinated or facilitated referral for mental health support.

In her article "Words to Leave By: Bridges Out of the Quiet Place," Kristin Flanary speaks about the three kinds of language that anyone who was either forced to or inspired to perform CPR can use to help process their trauma: words that explain what happened, words that name (eg, "forgotten patients"), and words that validate the experience and allow the person to articulate their feelings. The tools and technologies that organizations and healthcare professionals provide can help the healing process. Empathy and compassion, too, have a place.

But there are virtually no standardized and proactive initiatives of this kind in much of the world, including Latin America. So, most people who just happened to be in the right place at the right time find that they have to navigate the "after" part all on their own.

Other Obstacles

Márquez Murillo finds it unfortunate that countries in the region have yet to enact "Good Samaritan" laws. If individuals render aid to someone suffering cardiac arrest, then these laws would ensure that they will not be held liable in any way. This is the case in Argentina and Uruguay. So, the fear of things turning into a legal matter may be holding people back from taking action; that fear could also create additional stress for those who end up stepping in to help.

Even with the legal safeguards, exceptional circumstances may arise where rescuers find themselves facing unexpected emotional challenges. In Argentina, Virginia Pérez Antonelli, the 17-year-old who tried in vain to save the life of Fernando Báez Sosa, had to testify at the trial of the eight defendants accused of brutally beating him in January 2020. The press, the public — the attention of an entire country — was focused on her. She had to respond to the defense attorneys who were able to ask whether she was sure that she performed the CPR maneuvers correctly. And a few weeks ago, a medical examiner hired by the defense suggested that "the CPR may have made the situation worse" for the victim. An indignant Fitz Maurice responded on Twitter: "CPR SAVES LIVES!! Let's not let a CHEAP AND BASELESS argument destroy all the work that's been done...!"

Of course, there are consequences that are beyond our control and others that can, in fact, be anticipated and planned for. Fitz Maurice brought up a preventive approach: make CPR second nature, teach it in schools, help people overcome their fears. "Cardiac deaths are 200 times more frequent than deaths resulting from fires — and we practice fire drills a lot more than we practice CPR," he told Medscape. In a society where there is widespread training on the procedure, where people regularly practice the technique, those who have had the experience of giving someone CPR will feel less alone, will be better understood by others.

"On the other hand, beyond the initial impact and the lack of a formal support system, the medium- and long-term outcome for those who acted is also psychologically and emotionally favorable," said Jorge Bombau, MD, an obstetrician/gynecologist in Buenos Aires. After Bombau's 14-year-old son Beltrán suddenly died during a school sports tournament, Bombau became a prominent advocate spreading the word about CPR.

"I don't know anyone who regrets doing CPR," he told Medscape. "There may be a brief period when the person feels distressed or depressed, when they have trouble sleeping. But it's been proven that doing a good deed improves one's mood. And what better deed is there than trying to save someone's life? Whether their efforts were successful or in vain, that person has, at the end of the day, done something meaningful and worthwhile."

Snitcofsky shares this sentiment. For several months now, he's been feeling he's "in a good place." And he's been actively promoting CPR on social media. As he recently posted on Twitter, "I'm here to retweet everything that has to do with getting us all to become familiar with how to do CPR and working up the courage to do it. The training takes no more than a few hours.

"I want to know that if I ever have an out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrest, there will be neighbors, friends, or family members around who know how to do CPR. Every person who knows how to do CPR can persuade others, and those of us who've had to do CPR in real life are even better candidates for persuading others. And if one day a person ends up needing CPR, I want to step in again and make up for lost time. Here's hoping it'll do the job," he concluded.

It's the same for Matías Alonso, a journalist in Buenos Aires. On New Year's Eve 15 years ago, he was at a family dinner when, a few minutes before midnight, he found himself giving CPR to his stepmother's father. "Unfortunately, he passed away, but I continued doing CPR on him until the ambulance arrived. For some time, I felt a little guilty for not taking charge of the situation from the beginning, and because I had this idea in my head that more people pulled through and recovered. But afterwards, they really thanked me a lot. And that helped me realize that I'd done something. I didn't stand still when faced with the inevitability of death. I understood that it was good to have tried," Alonso told Medscape. "And next time…hopefully there won't be a next time…but I'm more prepared, and I now know how I can do better."

Alonso, Snitcofsky, Fitz Maurice, Mosca, Bombau, and Márquez disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Follow Matías A. Loewy of Medscape's Spanish edition on Twitter @MLoewy.

This article was translated from Medscape's Spanish edition.


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