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Safety and Welfare Inspiring Stories

A Cause Close to my Heart – Martin Johnson on the Importance of Sudden Cardiac Arrest Training

The England rugby legend is patron of the Joe Humphries Memorial Trust, which was set up to educate people about sudden cardiac arrest and create heart safe communities for all. In the second of a four-part series running in conjunction with UK Coaching’s ‘Be Quick. Be Smart. Restart a Heart’ campaign, Johnson explains to Blake Richardson his reasons for becoming emotionally invested in the charity, and impresses on coaches the importance of undertaking CPR and defibrillator training

Martin Johnson was – and still very much is – a household name, thanks to a glittering sporting legacy built through blood, sweat and cheers on the pitch and in the dugout.

Most people know that Johnson captained England to World Cup glory in 2003. Rugby aficionados will also know that he is one of only two men to have captained the British and Irish Lions on more than one tour.

One of the greatest players to have ever graced our shores, Johnson created more cherished memories when he took over as England team manager and led the nation to their first Six Nations title in eight years in 2011 – the same year he was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.

What most people don’t know, is that Johnson is building a legacy away from rugby that is just as powerful, through his involvement in a charity which is extremely close to his heart.

Since becoming patron of the Joe Humphries Memorial Trust (JHMT), Johnson’s motivation has switched from lighting up people’s lives to helping save lives.

Reliant, as he was throughout his rugby career, on the inspirational and hard-working team around him, these days Johnson measures success not by the number of people he can entertain, or the number of games he can win, but by the number of people he can motivate to complete sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) awareness training, so that they know exactly what to do in an emergency.

A nation of life savers

Every year in the UK there are around 30,000 out of hospital cardiac arrests. Currently, less than one in 10 people who experience a cardiac arrest out of hospital survive. 

Crucially, these deaths are preventable not inevitable, and Johnson is lending his time and support to help the JHMT improve SCA survival rates. 

“Being aware of sudden cardiac arrest and having a bit of training can make all the difference,” says Johnson. 

“I have heard some horrific stories and know that things could have turned out differently. Getting training is so vital and it is relatively easy to learn. 

I would urge all coaches to take UK Coaching’s online course, so that if you find yourself in that moment, you will know what to do; and know that you are giving that person the best chance they have of survival.”

The challenge of training a nation of life savers, whilst simultaneously campaigning for more AEDs (automated external defibrillators) to be made available in public locations, remains a work in progress. But, insists Johnson, the goal is achievable, and there have been some notable big wins.

“These things just need to be hammered away at,” he says when asked to reveal the charity’s long-term vision. 

“By introducing training on to the national curriculum, for example [which the Government rolled out in England in September 2020], very quickly you will potentially have huge numbers of people coming through with life-saving training. And in 10 to 15 years you’re talking hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, who are equipped with the skills and knowledge to improve cardiac arrest survival rates.” Skills for life, in every sense.

A lot of work remains to be done in the sport & physical activity and leisure & fitness sectors, with Johnson adding:

We (JHMT) want every sports club to have a defibrillator, and for everybody to have an awareness of them and to be taught CPR. That is the absolute ideal.”

That doesn’t just mean coaches, fitness professionals and staff at indoor and outdoor sport and leisure facilities, but parents and family members, participants, officials, volunteers and spectators too. 

“Immediate access to an AED along with CPR gives that person the best possible chance of survival,” adds Johnson. “Wherever sport is played, a defibrillator should be on site and readily accessible. When every second counts, it could be the difference between life and death.”


SCA does not discriminate 

In his role as JHMT patron, Johnson continues to drive home this powerful message with the same metronomic consistency as those crunching tackles he meted out to opposition players in his heyday. 

An influential figure, his words carry the weight needed to bust down barriers to learning and prompt clubs, organisations and individual coaches to sit up and take notice – and take meaningful action.

At present, there is a misapprehension among coaches that sudden cardiac arrest is not the sort of thing that happens to young, fit and healthy people.

The reality is that SCA doesn’t discriminate. Cardiac arrests happen not just to grandads, grandmas, mums and dads, they happen to sons and daughters too, whether they are Olympians or community athletes – and, for that matter, to coaches.

So, while 80% of SCAs happen in the household, it should not disguise the fact that they can happen anywhere, at any time, to anyone, making the need for sector-wide training imperative.

“Also, you think of the number of people at some sporting events,” adds Johnson. “I watch my son play football and sometimes there are hundreds of kids around playing sport at any one time, not to mention the number of parents and spectators in attendance.”

‘Most people have a story. There are too many stories!’

Johnson’s physical size is matched by the size of his compassion. Respected for his honest, no nonsense communication style, Johnson the straight shooter has a softer side, and this rose to the surface when he shared the story of how he became involved in the JHMT – the charity founded in 2013 by Steve Humphries following the tragic death of his son Joe, aged just 14.

“I have known Steve off and on for years and we were in a group that played football on Friday nights.

I got the call the day after saying that Joe had passed away and it was completely stunning. Horrible, horrible news. Steve and his wife Angela have been so incredibly brave and strong, and the people around them too.

“Irony of ironies, I had been talking to someone I know who coaches children’s football only days before about a situation he had gone through. It wasn’t a cardiac arrest, but people thought it was after a child got a bang on the head and then went down. We were talking about it in the week and then it happened to Joe. And, you know, when you talk to people nearly everyone has got a story.”

The irony is certainly not lost on me. In a tragic quirk of fate, my father-in-law suffered a cardiac arrest the day before I spoke to Martin for this feature. He was dead for 12 minutes before he was resuscitated, resulting in extensive brain damage. He passed away four days after the family took the advice of palliative care consultants to withdraw his ventilation.

I hear the word “rare” used a lot, and the phrase “well, it’s quite rare”. I get why it’s used but, actually, it happens a lot and I know numerous people and numerous stories. Most people have got a story. There are too many stories!”


Speed is critical

Every second counts. The chance of survival decreases by seven to 10 per cent for every minute of delayed intervention, but only by two to three per cent if CPR is administered.

And it bears repeating that, while SCAs cannot be prevented from happening, being prepared can make a massive difference.

Think fast, act fast. And don’t wait for somebody else, says Johnson.

“There will always be an initial shock if you are confronted by it, because we aren't paramedics who deal with it every day, but if you have had training, you go into autopilot, remember the steps you have been taught and jump straight into the ‘have we done this’, ‘have we done that’. That’s what training does, it kicks in.”

Johnson knows this from personal experience. 

His neighbour had a heart attack a few years ago and Johnson and his wife (who were first on the scene) administered CPR while a friend ran to fetch the village AED.

“We did what we could. Unfortunately, the post-mortem showed that there was nothing that we could have done that would have saved him because it was heart disease, not a cardiac arrest. 

But at least you know you have done everything that you can do. The thought of just standing there and doing nothing in that situation is horrendous. It was horrific anyway. 

“I’m just forever grateful that me and my wife both did the training through the Joe Humphries Memorial Trust.”


‘AEDs are nothing to be afraid of’

Another common misconception associated with SCA is that an AED can hurt the person you are trying to help by shocking them unnecessarily. 

Remember, someone who has a cardiac arrest is clinically dead. Their heart has stopped beating. Things cannot get worse and your actions can only help.

As Johnson explains, the AED is safe and easy to use. It automatically reads the heart rhythm and – using a series of illustrations and calm voice prompts – tells the user if a controlled electrical shock is required to restore a healthy heartbeat.

Of course you never want to get it out, but it’s a tool you may have to use, just like you would a fire extinguisher to put out a fire.

“If you spend time doing the training then part of that is knowing where your nearest AED is. And if you are away from somewhere that you know, then you ring 999 and they will tell you where the nearest one is. 

“The more you make yourself familiar with it, the more you will realise that it’s not something to be afraid of. You can use a modern defib without ever having seen one before if you keep calm. The machine itself will talk you through it step by step and the instructions are pretty clear.”

Sport England are investing heavily in AEDs and strongly recommend that all sports and physical activity areas have staff trained in CPR and have an AED on site, or nearby.

Free online training

It is a simple equation. The more people are trained in CPR and the use of an AED, the more lives will be saved. 

UK Coaching’s Lifesaving Digital Toolkit and accompanying free eLearning course will equip coaches with the knowledge and confidence to know how to respond quickly when an incident occurs. 

Set in a coaching context, the online learning will take you around half an hour to complete. We can promise you it will be time well spent.

It’s really not much to ask. You just have to commit some time, and not a lot of it, to some training – and then every couple of years do a refresher – and you will be improving people’s chances of surviving incredibly.”

The free cardiac arrest training is a small way for coaches to make a big difference.

Accustomed to training others to be prepared for action, coaches should welcome the boot being on the other foot, with training that will help them be prepared for action in an emergency.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest Digital Toolkit

Learn to be quick, be smart and restart a heart with our life-saving digital learning toolkit that will enable you to act swiftly and effectively in the event of a sudden cardiac arrest.

Take a look

Related Resources

  • Sudden Cardiac Arrest: The Story of One Ordinary Joe and his Extraordinary Legacy

  • Sudden Cardiac Arrest: A Coach’s Story

  • The Team of ‘Angels’ Who Gave Fabrice Muamba a Second Shot at Life


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