ATIYYAH AFZAL will never forget June 11, 2021. She was at home, in East London, where she lives with her parents.
She’d been a full-time trainer at St John Ambulance for 18 months and her job involved going to offices and other workplaces to give first aid courses to staff.
On that day, however, in the midst of the pandemic, Atiyyah, then 26, was on call at home.
Her mum Parveen, 54, was working from home, and at lunchtime went to the kitchen to make a sandwich.
After spreading on some chutney, she licked a remaining chunk of pickle from the spoon.
Suddenly Atiyyah, who was in the living room, heard frantic banging sounds.
Running in, she found her mum holding her throat, unable to speak. She was red in the face and panicking, her eyes bulging. Atiyyah realised that she was choking.
“Three years earlier, I would have had no clue what to do,” Atiyyah says. “But autopilot kicked in. We practise choking procedures once a month so I absolutely knew the drill.”
Distressing as it was to see her mum like that, Atiyyah kept a cool head and followed her training.
Using the palm of her hand, she first gave her mum a series of blows to the back, between the shoulder blades.
When that didn’t work she performed abdominal thrusts, with her arms beneath Parveen’s diaphragm. She was still choking.
Finally, with two more back blows, she heard her mum splutter and take a deep breath. It was over.
“It probably lasted about three minutes, but it felt much longer,” Atiyyah says. “Mum was shaky and had bruises on her back because I’d had to hit her so hard, but she was OK.”
Atiyyah had undoubtedly saved her mum’s life. “If you hadn’t been home today, I don’t think I would be here,” Parveen told her.
Atiyyah remembers seeing the deep relief in her dad’s eyes when he came home.
“It feels different when it’s a loved one,” Atiyyah says. “You really appreciate what you have been able to do. I am an only child, but we have a close-knit extended family and I’ve told my cousins how important it is to know first aid.
“You don’t need these skills until the day you do. To be prepared, and have trust in your training, can save a life.”
It wasn’t a path Atiyyah had expected to take. Three years earlier, she had been working as a science teacher in a secondary school. “I started teaching at 22 and felt I needed more world experience,” she says.
She completed the Event First Aider course over two weekends, which is when she first learnt how to deal with choking.
Straight away, she liked the supportive atmosphere at St John. “It was like a family,” Atiyyah says. So when a position came up for a full-time, salaried workplace trainer, she applied and got the job. Now she is a lead trainer.
As well as her training job, she volunteers at events, giving first aid to the public if needed.
“I’m a massive cricket fan and love being on duty at Lords. I was lucky enough to be there during the Cricket World Cup and, in 2019, at Trooping the Colour, I saw the Queen pass by in her carriage.”
Otherwise, it might be anything from a West Ham football match to a vintage car enthusiasts’ day.
“Everyone should know basic first aid,” Atiyyah says, stressing the importance of solid skills people can rely on in an emergency.
Driving to a community cricket match, she came across a road accident involving a cyclist. Well-meaning passers-by were trying to help but were doing the wrong thing.
“I had to keep people back, tell them not to move him and not to remove his helmet as emergency services arrived.”
As Atiyyah says, everyone is welcome at St John Ambulance. “They want you to be the best you can be and there is a real sense of community.
“I have a great job and I am for ever grateful for my training. If I hadn’t had those skills my mum would not be here today.”
Atiyyah says: “I started work for St John as a volunteer and I still do that, as well as working for them as a trainer in my day job.
“A lot of people don’t realise that St John is a charity and needs donations to help train and equip volunteers to save lives.
“It means a lot to me that donations might help save someone else’s mum or dad.”
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