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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Danish public sector workers offered full time contracts

People who work in the public sector for Danske Regioner, the regional authorities which are responsible for health services, will be given the automatic right to become contracted as full time employees.

Danish public sector workers offered full time contracts

The objective of the decision is to secure staff at hospitals and social services which are operated by regional authorities, Danske Regioner said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Regions’ elected official in charge of the salary and practice committee, Region Zealand council chairperson Heino Knudsen, said it was “crucial” for regional authorities to increase the working hours of staff by moving more people from part-time to full-time terms.

“We need staff in the health services and we need all the staff we can get. Preferably a lot more who are working full time,” Knudsen said.

“Currently, we can see that an overall 32 percent of people employed by Regions are part-time. We very much want to reduce that percentage so that more people want to work full time and have the option of doing so,” he said.

Social care sector staff have had the right to automatically become full-time since 2020, but the option was not previously extended to all employees.

READ ALSO: What’s the difference between a municipality and a region in Denmark?