Steve Braunias continues his occasional series on preparing for the end of the world.
There was a puddle of water on the kitchen floor by the fridge. "The mop," said the first aid instructor from the St John's ambulance service, "has gone walkabout."
Along with 18 other New Zealanders good and true, all of us deeply concerned for the welfare of others, I recently turned up at St John's in Te Atatu South for a one-day training course. It cost $165. It was next to a KFC. We sat in a dark room with a low ceiling. The instructor said good morning, and apologised for the leaking fridge. "Watch yourselves in there," he said. "Dangerous."
But that was life. Danger lay everywhere. It was close at hand, could arrive at any moment - a part of me hoped that some poor fool would go for a skate while making a cup of tea in the kitchen, and do themselves an injury, because then reality would intrude on the day's play-acting and make-believe. I was in the mood for genuine physical harm, and trained rescue. It was why I signed up.
Very near the top of my list of things to do to prepare for the end of the world is the instruction: Save others. The thought of people calling out for help – loved ones, strangers, children – is bad enough. Trapped, crushed, burned, bleeding, broken....The thought of not being able to do anything to help is even more terrifying.
Every single home should have a first-aid kit. Every single Doomsday prepper does have a first-aid kit. I have three - two for the house, one for the car. But if civilisation really does topple, and survivors are in panic, in shock, in pain, it's going to require a bit more than fossicking around inside a first-aid kit for bandages or cotton wool. I paid the $165 fee to St John's in anticipation of some kind of basic medical knowledge.
It's awe-inspiring to see it applied. Last year, I was having a few drinks in Hamilton when someone collapsed, and a friend who happens to be a volunteer fireman took control of the situation. Things were pretty worrying for a while, but his medical assistance saved the day. I wasn't any help. I went to the bar and got another drink.
And so to a Monday morning in Te Atatu South, a high plateau in West Auckland above the Whau River, rolling down the other side to the banks of Henderson Creek.
The day was warm. The windows were open. There were strips of Sellotape hanging from the ceiling: left-overs from a Christmas party. We introduced ourselves to each other. There were engineers, nursing students, Katya the personal trainer, Lara from Westpac. All of us good, decent, average Kiwis, all of us desperate to learn how to provide assistance in a crisis – well that's what I assumed. It turned out that most were there just to pass an NZQA requirement, or because their work had sent them. It could have been a class in hygiene or something for all that it mattered.
As for the instructor, man could that guy talk. He talked and talked and talked. I listened and kind of listened and stopped listening. He talked about how he bought his mum in Taumaranui a brand-new printer rather than try to tell her over the phone how to replace the ink cartridges. I quite enjoyed that story; he had a droll humour.
He talked about his asthma. He talked about buying five hi-vis vests for $2 each at Field Days in Mystery Creek. (I liked that story, too. Come Doomsday, you can never have too many hi-vis vests.) He talked a lot about defibrillators. Not so much how to use them, in fact nothing about how to use them, more just about that defibrillators are a very good thing to have in an office.
He talked about the time he died. He collapsed at a medical conference of all places, and his heart stopped beating. Strangely, he said, another St John's ambulance officer had a heart attack that same day, at an Elton John concert. He talked about the art and career of Elton John – okay he didn't talk about the art and career Elton John, or maybe he did, while I was sleeping in the mid-afternoon.
The class began at 8am. I wrote in my notebook at 9:25am: "Haven't learned a thing." I wrote in my notebook at 2:10pm: "Pat Glucina, 1990-91" - in a futile attempt to stay awake, I was copying down the names on plaques on the wall listing past presidents of the Lions and Lioness clubs of West Auckland. But it wasn't a total waste of time and money. I ate KFC at lunchtime. Plus I learned how to play-act the role of someone performing make-believe CPR on something that wasn't alive.
The dummies were stacked in blue canvas bags on a trolley. There were adults and babies. They were creepy, legless things, with soft chests and blank eyes. We talked to them: "Are you alright?" They didn't answer. We pressed on their chests, one hand on top of the other for adults, two fingers on babies. We tilted their heads back. We held up their chins. We listened for their breathing. They breathed. They got up and walked out the door to KFC . . . It was easy to hallucinate in that dark, low-ceilinged room, with its plaques and Sellotape strips and slow hours.
The thing is that I expected too much. I thought it would serve as some sort of rehearsal for the apocalypse and how to handle it, and I'd emerge as someone who might come in useful during a medical emergency. I suppose I know how to press down on a dummy's chest. That could be a transferrable skill in real life, so long as people didn't move, stared with calm, blank eyes, and didn't say anything.
Towards the end of the afternoon, after a two or three-hour monologue which might have been about Pat Glucina or Elton John, and then a little bit of advice on what to do in a medical emergency, the class was divided into groups. We were told to act out roles of someone suffering a heart attack, someone who got burned, and someone with a broken arm.
It all happened very quickly. There was a lot of noise. Everyone talked at once. People lay down on the floor, and groaned. It was very confusing and I forgot the advice and panicked, raced around, stood still, hoped for the best, and was afraid. Everywhere, people were dying on my watch. It really did feel like an apocalypse, or some kind of crisis – the prone bodies and the din of raised voices transformed Te Atatu South into a disaster zone, and I was a clueless bystander, no help at all.
The exercise barely lasted 20 minutes. It was time to go. "Well done and thank you for coming," said the instructor. I was given a First Aid Level 1 certificate. See you on Doomsday: I'll be at the bar.