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Too Many Movie Characters Are Left for Dead After a Pulse Check

Action heroes don’t know CPR, apparently

I know that movies aren’t real life. Sometimes we have to bend the rules and suspend disbelief to create compelling cinema. However, now that I’ve read a certain Reddit thread on r/ExplainLikeImFive, I will never be able to see certain action and horror films the same way.

“In movies when someone suddenly dies everyone is like ‘he’s dead’ after checking the pulse and just leave it at that,” writes u/CollectableRat. “But when should you do CPR, if someone suddenly ‘drops dead’ why shouldn’t you do chest compressions/breaths?” they ask.

The answer: Of course you’re supposed to do CPR if someone doesn’t have a pulse. Depending on how important a fallen character is to the plotline, you might see someone start chest compressions on them. But if they’re expendable, the unconscious is lucky to get a pair of fingers anywhere close to their carotid artery to check for a sign of life. And still, the would-be rescuer is often prepared to call the death after 0.04 seconds of waiting to feel a heartbeat

When Star Trek’s Dr. Leonard McCoy declares, “He’s dead, Jim,” of the latest casualty in the series, we take him at his word because he’s a doctor in the future with a health-scanner thingy. Yet he, too, would merely graze a patient’s neck before consigning them to the afterlife. According to at least one emergency physician here on Earth, “Our fingers are poorly sensitive for detecting which patients have a pulse in a shock state,” and the method should be abandoned altogether, lest a false reading lead to potentially counterproductive CPR.   

In the majority of pulse-checking scenes, the attending character has no medical training to begin with. In a conventional thriller, it could be a hero strapped with guns who kneels for a moment to hurriedly confirm his wounded pal is down for good before moving on to face the bad guys alone. Other times, in fantasy, neither individual is human, or bound by the natural laws of our universe. Why are we leaving so many bodies to rot without basic due diligence?

Nobody, by the way, does the first thing you’re actually meant to do, which is call 911. Even the WikiHow for “How to Tell if Someone Is Dead” mentions that. I suppose, in fairness, if you’re being attacked by aliens from a neighboring dimension, you can’t expect an ambulance to show up, and CPR is principally a method for sustaining vitals until they can be managed with more sophisticated measures. Nevertheless, I’m haunted by the idea that there’s a real percentage of on-screen deaths established by a hasty pulse check from a protagonist who has already moved on emotionally, the victim had a chance of surviving. 

Whoops! Try not getting shot next time.