CPR Master Class Is Nurse Helen’s Angina Monologues

I recently decided to get CPR-certified. I hadn’t laid my lips on a rubber mannequin since high school and, prompted by the fact that one of my good friends has a heart condition, I figured it was time to brush up on my technique. The fitness manager at my local gym directed me to a registered respiratory therapist-whom I’ll call Nurse Helen-offering classes on the Upper East Side. “We have a class next Wednesday!” Nurse Helen yelled over the phone when I called for details. “Can you make it?” “I think I might be able to,” I said, reaching for my day planner. “I need a yes or a no, not a maybe!” she barked. Before I could see if I was free, I told her I’d be there. “Get here at 4,” she said, “not a minute before, not a minute after. You’ll be out of here by 7. Bring cash!”

The training, which cost $45, was held in a cramped doctor’s-office waiting room that reeked of rubbing alcohol. On the floor were four bald, naked torsos with wads of cotton stuffed in their mouths and DayGlo stickers on their foreheads that read “cardiac arrest.” “I call her Sinéad,” said Nurse Helen, a dumpling-shaped, middle-aged woman with squinty eyes and scarecrow hair pulled back into a scraggly ponytail, as she tripped over the most beat-up mannequin on the line.

At 4 p.m. I cringed a bit, expecting her to scream at the stragglers, but she spent the next seven minutes clearing fire exits and pulling chairs away from dangling extension cords. The space looked like one big accident waiting to happen. And as Nurse Helen knocked noisily about in her rubber-soled shoes and stained white lab coat, she seemed intent on preventing every conceivable manifestation it might assume. There was even a sign next to the water fountain that read: “Proceed with caution! Please use a cup while enjoying a drink of water from our fountain.”

Meanwhile, the better part of Nurse Helen’s eight-student class-all of them but me nurses or caregivers seeking CPR recertification-were engaged in some accident prevention themselves. One by one, they slunk out of the room to use the bathroom-until Helen blew.

“Enough!” she finally said. “Girls, I’m running a class; you can’t keep going! If you gotta go, go now!”

Then she halfheartedly shook an empty grocery bag and told us to put our gum and candy in it. Nobody made a move, and Nurse Helen let the bag flutter onto the reception desk. Class had begun.

“Boys and girls,” she started, “today we’re going to learn how to make a dead person alive again! Well, maybe, maybe not-but we’re gonna try, alright?”

“O.K.!” some of us said in unison, while others mulled over paperwork they’d brought from their day jobs. Nurse Helen didn’t like this lukewarm response. She stomped her foot noiselessly on the carpet. “Nobody’s listening to Mommy!” she bellowed, then ordered us to put all our belongings under our chairs and focus.

Maintaining eye contact with Nurse Helen wasn’t easy, however. She was in constant motion, bouncing around the room like a methamphetamine freak. It was as if she had vowed to apply the CPR credo-beating life into the lifeless-to every waking moment of her existence.

“When do you stop?” I asked her at one point-meaning when, during the course of administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation, do you conclude that Sinéad, or whoever was receiving the kiss of life, is not going to revive?

Nurse Helen rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling. “You are the Energizer Bunny!” she told me. I shuddered. God help the person who has a coronary in the vicinity of Nurse Helen, I thought.

The presentation included a video, which apparently was important because Nurse Helen kept planting herself in front of the tiny portable TV and yelling, “Watch this! Watch this!” as she punched at the graphics on the screen with her index finger. Then, a few minutes later, she growled: “You’re not listening!”

She was right. How could we pay attention to an instructional video when Nurse Helen was so much more interesting? Clearly, she was passionate about her vocation, but somewhere down the line, Nurse Helen’s enthusiasm for CPR had transmogrified into a performance piece which she had unwittingly developed and deepened over the years. It was a one-woman show seemingly inspired by Greek tragedy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ s Nurse Ratched, Gomer Pyle ‘s Sergeant Carter and, perhaps, personal experience. During the instructional video, when the narrator said, “At one time or another, we’ve all choked on a piece of food or candy,” Nurse Helen replied from across the room: “Ohhh, have we ever !”

Who could blame her, really? The repetition of a workaday shtick can do strange things to a person-think of it as carpal-tunnel syndrome of the mind. I had to endure the Nurse Helen show for only one evening, but she had been staring down trauma-numbed nurses forever.

The problem was that I hadn’t performed CPR countless times during my career. I had come to learn the proper technique, but instead became distracted by Nurse Helen’s vaudeville routine.

This became embarrassingly apparent when she chose me for one of her frequent oral pop quizzes. “You!” she said, planting her face a few inches from mine. The American-flag pin on the lapel of her lab coat glinted beneath the office’s fluorescent lighting. “You’re coming out of an elevator and the person behind you staggers”-Nurse Helen staggered-“and falls to the ground.” She stumbled, but never hit the floor.

I nodded, transfixed.

“You go up to him and shake him, but he doesn’t respond,” she said. “Is this bad or good?”

“It’s bad!” I shot back, like a Parris Island grunt to her drill sergeant.

“Right! It’s bad!” She paced a few steps away and then whipped around for the coup de grâce: “You’ve cleared his airway. Now what do you do? Tell me your ABC’s!”

The ABC’s are the three-step mantra of CPR: open airway; give two breaths; check for circulation. But the sight of Nurse Helen’s looming, leathery face had chased this knowledge into some dark crevice of my memory. I sputtered out some obtuse non-answer. Nurse Helen was not pleased.

“Help her out!” she barked, looking around the waiting room.

“Buckle down!” I told myself. After all, I was here to learn how to save my friend’s life-I wasn’t spending 45 bucks and enduring three hours of sadistic hoo-ha to watch the Angina Monologues .

The evening climaxed with Nurse Helen’s violent impersonation of a choking victim, during which she repeatedly threw her body up against a chair to demonstrate the auto-Heimlich, and then, to illustrate the international sign for “I’m choking,” she crossed her eyes and proceeded to brutalize my upper arm as if it were a door she was trying to break down.

The dénouement came in the form of a relatively easy multiple-choice exam. Many answers were subtly imbedded in other questions, and someone had circled the correct responses on my copy. It seems fair to say that most of the students left the class satisfied they got what they came for-the certificate necessary for continued employment.

As for me, I’m still not confident I’d be able to make a dead person alive again. Thankfully, we did get a free manual, which I intend-as instructed-to read every day. Should I, one day, be confronted with a cardiopulmonary emergency, I figure I’ll just say my ABC’s, make like the Energizer Bunny-and try not to think of Nurse Helen.

CPR Master Class Is Nurse Helen’s Angina Monologues