Stop the Bleed training aims to create citizen first responders

two people stand next to a medical device
Trainer Tom Vanderwal shows student Addison Lauwagie how to apply pressure to a wound during a class at Park Rapids High School on Feb. 12.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Stop the Bleed training was created about a decade ago in response to mass shootings.

When a person suffers a traumatic injury, bleeding is the number one cause of death. Time is of the essence. A person can bleed to death in minutes.

“When we think of Stop the Bleed, think of the little Dutch boy that’s putting their finger in the dike. You’re just trying to plug a hole,” said Tom Vanderwal, program director at Greater Northwest Emergency Medical Services.

Vanderwal is on a mission to spread this message across northern Minnesota.

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Greater Northwest Emergency Medical Services is one of eight regional EMS planning agencies statewide. Those agencies coordinate training across the state. Vanderwal leads emergency medical training across 12 northern counties.

a group of high school students in a classroom
Students Tiana Boxell and Jena Meier practice applying a tourniquet during a class at Park Rapids High School on Feb. 12.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

He recently brought Stop the Bleed training to a class at Park Rapids High School. This is one of his target audiences.

“If I could do this for every single high school kid before they graduate, in 10-15 years I’ve got a whole generation that are basic first responders,” Vanderwal explained.

This training teaches the students to apply pressure to a wound, pack a wound with gauze, and for the wounds that won't stop bleeding, apply a tourniquet.

Vanderwal also teaches the students to be creative. No gauze? Use a T-shirt. No tourniquet? Use a shirt sleeve and a stick.

He will bring this training to anyone from police officers to community service clubs to classrooms. His goal is to create a corps of citizen responders.

“So that you’re a first responder for your neighbor, I’m a first responder for my spouse, my kids, my neighbor,” Vanderwal explained. “That’s my crazy vision that I have for the future, especially in northwest region.”

That vision comes from the realization that the number of rural emergency responders is shrinking as fewer people volunteer.

two people stand at a table
Trainer Tom Vanderwal shows student Olivia Miller how to pack a wound during a class at Park Rapids High School on Feb. 12.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

While CPR for people in cardiac arrest has been widely taught for decades, the Stop the Bleed initiative is less than 10 years old.

But trainer Troy Mayer believes it’s critical knowledge to spread around, because a severely injured person can bleed to death in two minutes, long before an ambulance arrives.

“When we have these extremity bleeds, it’s easily correctable with a tourniquet,” said Mayer, who is also a Wadena County Sheriffs Deputy. “We’re talking these statistics of 70 percent of people that exsanguinate or die from bleeding out is stuff that could have been stopped.”

Mayer helps students apply a tourniquet on a fake leg with deep wounds, and he tries to dispel what he calls a long standing myth about using a tourniquet.

“The tourniquet is not this big, scary thing. And we’ve always been taught when we were younger generations ago, that if you put a tourniquet on basically you’re going to amputate that limb, and that’s just not the case,” Mayer said.

Students are told to write the time they apply the tourniquet somewhere on the patient, using blood if they don’t have a pen. At the emergency room that information is important for doctors working to restore blood flow to the injured limb.

several people stand around a table
Trainer Troy Mayer watches students practice techniques to stop severe bleeding during a class at the Park Rapids High School on Feb. 12.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Park Rapids district nurse Tia Kocka says school staff have been trained to Stop the Bleed and she believes it is a critical skill.

“Not only in a school setting, if somebody were to become injured and start bleeding, but also in a community setting,” Kocka said. “If somebody comes across an accident or they’re just at their house, just living everyday life, it can help save lives.”

a plastic bag containing medical supplies
Stop the Bleed kits are provided to those who take Stop the Bleed training classes. The kits contain basic tools needed to provide immediate care for trauma victims.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Stop the bleed tools include rolls of gauze, tape, gloves, a pen and a tourniquet. Vanderwal puts those tools in zip lock bags and dispenses them to people who take the class. He also leaves them in public spaces whenever he can.

Junior Addison Lauwagie said this training gives her more confidence to deal with a traumatic injury she might come upon.

“When I’m just like sitting there driving down the road, I’m like, ‘Oh, if I just like saw an accident, what would I even do,” she said. “Like, I know CPR. But like, if they were bleeding, I don’t know.”

She left the class with a Stop the Bleed kit to carry in her car, and the knowledge to use it.