How national trauma of Eriksen’s heart scare energised Denmark’s ‘heart runners’

Danish footballer Christian Eriksen's cardiac arrest on the pitch during the Euros was "a shock" that inspired thousands of Danes to join the 'heart runners', a volunteer rescue programme.

Surge in sign-ups for the Hjertelober (Heart Runner) app, in Copenhagen
The app Hjerteløber (Heart Runner) showing a scenario of what a user would see when a possible heart attack occurs, shown next to a defibrillator in Copenhagen in June 2021. Photo: Tim Barsoe/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

What was supposed to be a fun night of watching football on television on June 12th, 2021 turned into a nightmare when Eriksen collapsed on the field, lying unconscious for several minutes as the stunned crowd in the Copenhagen stadium and millions of television viewers around the world watched on in horror. 

“For Danes, and everyone watching the match, it was a real national trauma”, recalls 24-year-old Nikolaj Christensen, one of the many Danish fans who were watching at home that evening.

Thanks to Eriksen’s teammates’ speedy response — some of whom were able to provide first aid in the initial moments — and medics’ use of a defibrillator on the pitch, Eriksen was revived and his life was saved, doctors later said.

That was a wake-up call for Christensen, who “also wanted to be able to help”, he says.

Launched in 2017, the idea behind the ‘heart runners’ (hjerteløbere in Danish) is simple: draw up a list of first aid volunteers and contact them in case of a cardiac arrest in their vicinity.

No special training is necessary, as all Danes are taught cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) at school and again when they pass their driving test. 

To sign up, you just need to download an app on your mobile phone and add your name. 

More than 2,000 people have signed up since Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, including 641 who did so in the minutes and hours after the incident as emotions ran high, compared to the usual 150 or 200 who sign up during a normal week.

The wave of emotion “was an eye opener for the broader public”, says Fredrik Folke, a doctor who co-founded the ‘heart runners’ programme with the TrygFonden foundation.

Danes realised that anyone can help save a life.

“It wasn’t fancy medication, or advanced resuscitation equipment at the hospital, it was basic things” like Eriksen’s teammates doing initial first aid and having a defibrillator close at hand, Folke tells AFP.

“That was what saved Christian Eriksen”.

For Christensen, being a ‘heart runner’ is inextricably linked to his passion for football.

On July 11th, he was once again seated in front of his television watching football, this time the Euro Championship final.

“The Italians hadn’t even raised the cup yet when I heard an unexpected alarm on my phone. It took me a few seconds to realise that I had to go run and help someone”, he recalls.

He ran to a nearby defibrillator — there are 20,000 spread out in public places around the country — and made his way to the address provided on his phone.

Three other ‘heart runners’ also turned up, and together they were able to administer CPR to a person in need before the ambulance arrived two minutes later.

Christensen hasn’t received any news since then about how things went — volunteers are not informed about whether the patient survives or not.

“I think the person survived. Science tells us that the faster you intervene the greater the chances are of saving a life”, he says.

In 2001, only 19 percent of Denmark’s cardiac arrest victims received CPR from a bystander, compared to 80 percent today, according to Folke.

During that 20-year span, the chance of surviving a cardiac arrest outside of hospitals has quadrupled.

In the country of 5.8 million, some 5,000 people suffer cardiac arrest outside a hospital each year, and around 600 now survive.

“The race is to reach the patient as fast as possible with a defibrillator”, Folke says.

Emergency services send out an alert that goes to the 20 closest volunteers, and usually about half jump into action.

In five years, the number of ‘heart runners’ has soared from 14,500 in 2017 to 130,000 in January 2022.

In a country the size of France, “that would correspond to 1.4 million responders”.

Christian Eriksen’s dramatic rescue has also spurred Danes to sign up for first aid courses.

The Red Cross has seen registration for its courses triple since the start of the summer.

READ ALSO: ‘We got Christian back’: Denmark doctor recounts football star Eriksen’s collapse

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How will Denmark’s health reform change country’s health services?

Junior doctors will spend more time in general practice during their training and 25 new local hospitals will be opened under a new health sector reform announced on Friday.

How will Denmark's health reform change country’s health services?

An agreement for the reform was presented by the government on Friday with the backing of a parliamentary majority.

The deal had been delayed with the Covid-19 crisis among the obstacles which drew out its completion.

It provides for 6.8 billion kroner of spending on the Danish health service over the next eight years, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke told media on Friday.

“We have an agreement for a health reform that will support local health services. Many parties are with us. (The deal) could not have broader support,” he said.

Parties on both sides of Denmark’s political aisle are in agreement over the deal, with Martin Geertsen, health spokesperson with the opposition Liberal (Venstre) party, calling it “a good little deal”.

“Does this agreement solve all the challenges faced by the Danish health service going forward? No. Certainly not. It’s a good little deal. It’s a step in the right direction,” Geertsen said.

The health spokesperson with the left-wing party Red Green Alliance, Peder Hvelplund, likewise characterised the reform as a small but positive step that does not solve all of the problems within the health system currently.

In an earlier version of the deal, proposed by the governing Social Democrats, up to 20 local hospitals – around the size of extended, large health centres – were proposed. The location of the centres that will be opened or built under the reform is not clear at the current time.

The new, local centres could potentially be located in former hospital premises.

The government also proposed a form of compulsory service which junior doctors would have to complete as part of their training, involving working for an experience GP. This will be undertaken as part of doctors’ studies under the terms of the reform.

This means that young doctors will spend an extra six months working at GP surgeries and spend less time at hospitals.

Earlier health proposals by the government related to additional restrictions on tobacco and alcohol sales do not form part of the agreement announced on Friday.

Negotiations over those proposals will take place separately, Heunicke said.

“Next week we will open negotiations on the remaining elements relating to prevention (of smoking and excessive alcohol consumption). It was the right thing to do to split things up because we got this broadly-supported agreement,” he said.