We often write about medical strategies when a society collapses, but, sometimes, an individual may collapse as a result of fainting (also called “syncope”). It usually occurs when a drop in blood pressure (“hypotension”) doesn’t allow enough oxygenated blood to reach the brain.
Someone who has fainted must be differentiated from the person who has “seized” from epilepsy. Fainters won’t exhibit jerky movements as in a Grand Mal seizure or stare into space as in a Petit Mal seizure. Also, a person who has had a seizure tends to be difficult to rouse for a period of time. This is called a “post-ictal” state and may last for 30 minutes or so before it resolves on its own. Most people who have only fainted will regain alertness relatively soon after the episode.
(Note: Grand Mal and Petit Mal are no longer used in the latest nomenclature of seizures. They changed the whole system in 2017, but most people still know them by these names.)
There are a few signs that a person is close to fainting:
- Cold, clammy skin
- Nausea or vomiting
- Complaints of feeling lightheaded or weak
- A sensation of spinning
- Tunnel vision or blurriness
- Slow pulse
- Momentary lack of attention
(Note: More than once, I’ve had a surgical intern or other assistant faint dead away during a grueling and long surgical procedure.)
Survival scenarios almost guarantee the medic will be confronted with a person who has fainted at one point or another. Simple activities of survival, such as long hikes to retreats, work sessions in hot weather, and hiding out in hot shelters without climate control, can make certain group members prone to syncope. In addition, skipped meals and dehydration will put many of your people at risk.
Low blood sugar and various other medical conditions can cause fainting. Good hydration and appropriate dietary intake will prevent most episodes. Glucose or honey packets, for example, can help raise a person’s blood sugar that has gone dangerously low. Have some in your kit. Others may pass out due to irregular heart rhythms, extreme stress, or even pregnancy.
If someone feels as if they are about to collapse, they should sit down and put their head down between their knees to increase blood flow to the brain. If you see someone who is fainting from a standing position, hold and gently lower them to the ground on their back. In normal times, of course, you would have someone call emergency medical services as soon as possible.
If help isn’t coming, it’s up to you to quickly evaluate the victim. If the patient fell to the floor, there is always the possibility of a head injury. Evaluate for obvious wounds and rule out concussion.
A person who has had a simple fainting spell will usually be breathing normally and have a steady, regular pulse. Raise their legs about 12 inches off the ground and above the level of their heart and head. This position will help increase blood flow to the brain. Assess the patient for evidence of trauma, bleeding, or signs of a seizure. If bleeding, apply direct pressure to the wound. If no pulse or breathing, begin CPR.
After the first few seconds, you have determined that the victim is breathing, has a pulse, and is not bleeding. Tap on their shoulder (some say to gently shake) and ask in a clear voice “Can you hear me?” or “Are you OK?”. Loosen any constricting clothing and make sure that they are getting lots of fresh air by keeping the area around them clear of crowds. Look for a medical alert bracelet that may give clues as to their health issues. If you are in an area that is hot, fan the patient or carefully carry them to a cooler area. Cool compresses may be helpful.
If you are successful in arousing the patient, ask them if they have any pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or epilepsy. Stay calm and speak in a reassuring manner. People oftentimes are embarrassed and want to brush off the incident, but be aware they are still at risk for another fall.
Once the victim is awake and alert (Do they know their name? Do they know where they are? What year it is?), you may have the patient sit up slowly if they are not otherwise injured. Don’t let them get up for 15 minutes or so, even if they say that they are fine. If you are not in an austere setting, emergency medical personnel are on the way; wait until they arrive before having the patient stand up. Off the grid, however, you will have to make a judgment as to whether and when the victim is capable of returning to normal activities. A period of observation would be wise.
As dehydration and low blood sugar are possible causes, some oral intake may be helpful during recovery. This is appropriate only if it is clear that they are completely conscious, alert, and able to function. Test their strength by having them raise their knees against the pressure of your hands. If they are weak, they should continue to rest. Close monitoring of the patient will be very important, as some internal injuries may not manifest for hours.
Joe Alton MD