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One UT Student's Mission: Train Everyone On Campus How To Save A Life

Austin Price for KUT
Claire Zagorski trains students Tristine Lam and Armando Arizpe how to use a tourniquet.

Three of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history have happened in the last five months. The most recent was just last week, when a gunman opened fire at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

Seventeen people were killed.

It’s easy to feel helpless in a situation like this, but one pre-med student at UT Austin says there is something people can do, and she’s making it her mission to train everyone on campus.

A New Reality

“If your victim is lying in a pool of blood, if your victim has a limb torn off,” Claire Zagorski tells a group of students, “these are all bad signs that we need to act and we need to do something.”

Zagorski’s class isn’t a typical elective. It’s one of the university’s first "Stop the Bleed" courses, a free training offered nationwide that teaches everyday people basic skills to help stop someone from bleeding to death.

It started in 2015 as a national awareness campaign created in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. In December 2012, a 20-year-old gunman fatally shot 26 people. Most of the victims were between 6 and 7 years old. It was one of the country’s deadliest mass shootings.

But it was another tragic event right on campus that made Zagorski think seriously about "Stop the Bleed." Last year, a student attacked people with a hunting knife outside Gregory Gym. The attacker injured three people and killed one: UT freshman Harrison Brown. As a trained paramedic, Zagorski says she took for granted that she’d know what to do in this type of situation.

“There was a Daily Texan article where they quoted one of the bystanders to Harrison’s death. And she basically said, you know, there was someone laying there in front of me bleeding and I could do nothing but wait,” she says. “And that really was like striking that baseball with a bat … because it’s not true.”

After Harrison’s death, Zagorski decided to start a "Stop the Bleed" chapter at UT.

“It was going to be a kind of a new CPR almost,” she says. “It’s going to be this easy, straightforward class that you can teach anyone to respond in those very critical moments to save someone who could easily die.”

A Faculty-Sponsored Effort

Zagorski wasn’t alone in seeing the program's potential.

“In the body we have about a gallon of blood,” says Steve Steffensen, a professor of neurology and chief of the Learning Health System at UT’s Dell Medical School. “And in certain types of trauma, you can die within a matter of five to 10 minutes if something isn’t done.”

Steffensen says he learned about Zagorski’s initiative when she was a part of the Health Leadership Apprentice program, which trains students in health care delivery and policy. The moment she introduced the idea of "Stop the Bleed," Steffensen decided to help sponsor the effort.

“How big are you willing to take this?” he says. “When she told me, ‘I want to train everybody on the UT campus,’ I said ‘I think I can help make that happen.’”

With that, Steffensen helped get Dell Med to sponsor "Stop the Bleed."

A Lesson In ABCs

Zagorski has already trained more than 500 people on campus. It turns out, it’s all about knowing your ABCs.

“A is for alert, which means call 911; B is for bleeding, which means to find what’s bleeding; and C is for compress,” she says.  

Credit Austin Price for KUT
Students practice applying gauze to a stab wound.

It’s pretty straightforward: You need to do whatever you can to stop the bleed. That means things like pushing all your weight on your hands and holding down on the injury. It can also mean packing the wound with gauze (or a relatively clean shirt).

Zagorski explains how to do each of these things, but she also makes sure the class tries it out themselves. For example, she has a dummy leg that’s been both shot and stabbed. One student after another takes a turn packing the wounds with gauze. They also put tourniquets on each other’s arms.

Throughout the class students learn that many of the things they thought to be right are actually wrong. During a discussion about tourniquets, a student asks how to make an improvised tourniquet if you don’t have a professional one. Zagorski is quick to dismiss the idea. 

“This takes a lot of time and when we’re panicked we don’t do things efficiently,” she says. “Here is what is better: good direct pressure.”

The class also teaches students some harsh truths. In what Zagorski calls her “bummer slide,” the class learns that if someone is shot in the chest or abdomen, there's nothing to do but wait for help.

The reason you can't do anything for a chest wound is because it's probably underneath the rib cage; you can’t reach it without crushing the person’s ribs and causing further injury. When it comes to an abdomen wound, you can't hold pressure because most of those organs are hollow, filled with gas and slippery.

“If I had a balloon, which is also filled with gas, and I start pressing on it, what will it do?” Zagorski says. “It’s going to keep going away from me, kind of endlessly.”

A Clear Need

As another class is making its way into the classroom, Zagorski is forced to move her students to the hallway. Most of them linger to ask questions. How high do I place the tourniquet? What if there is a bone protruding? How will I know if I’m pressing down hard enough?

They stay well into the next hour until Zagorski herself has to leave for a meeting.  

Tristine Lam, a junior marketing major, says everyone should have this knowledge, but in light of the school shootings it’s particularly important.

“If you’re panicked, having this background knowledge of, like, how to apply tourniquets, it’s super important.” Lam says. “We have to somehow overcome the panic and shock and do something.”

For Claire Zagorski, that’s what "Stop the Bleed" is all about: That realization that you’re not helpless.

“I know it sounds kind of intimidating to think about traumatic events,” she says. “But I want you to just walk away with an invisible backpack that you can just whip out at any time and hopefully feel empowered to act … and empowered to save a life.”

Find more information about the Longhorn chapter of "Stop the Bleed" here.

Nadia Hamdan is a local news anchor and host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT.
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