Teacher's training saves student's life

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Sprague - posted Tue., Oct. 18, 2011
Third-grade teacher Lydia Plona displays the book Ethan Rivera made in thanks for saving him  from choking. Photo by Janice Steinhagen.
Third-grade teacher Lydia Plona displays the book Ethan Rivera made in thanks for saving him from choking. Photo by Janice Steinhagen.

When third grade teacher Lydia Plona signed up for the cardio-pulmonary resuscitation course offered for staff at Sayles Elementary School, she remembered thinking, “I hope I never have to use this.”

But one of her students is glad she did.

Last month, Plona used the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge a water bottle cap that had been inadvertently swallowed by her student, Ethan Rivera. Her quick thinking and effective response may well saved the boy’s life.

On the afternoon of Sept. 12, Plona heard coughing in her classroom and saw 8-year-old Ethan at his desk, gasping. “It looked like he couldn’t breathe and he looked kind of purple,” she said. “I didn’t even use the phone. I told someone to go get [school nurse Pat] Houle.” Then her training clicked into place.

“She said [to Ethan], ‘stand up’, and she did the Heimlich maneuver,” said Houle, who was doing paperwork in another part of the building. Plona stepped behind the boy and placed her arms under his ribcage, as she’d been trained to do. 

“I just focused,” she said. “I didn’t worry about what the other kids were doing. I remember it was very quiet,” she recalled about the classroom. “You just go into that zone and do what you need to do,” she said.

Ethan was so lightweight that she was lifting him off the floor with each upward thrust of her fists. “I thought, ‘I hope it’s working!’” she recalled. “But it does work.” 

“By the time I got there she had already dislodged [the cap],” said Houle. Those precious few minutes were a crucial factor in the incident’s good outcome, she added. “I can’t be in all these places at one time,” she said. Knowing that other staff members can step up to the plate in an emergency is something that Houle said she appreciates immensely.

Sayles principal Jean Wierzbinski said that Ethan, who was a bit shaky and throwing up after the incident, went home early with his parents.

“I told the kids, ‘What you just saw is called the Heimlich maneuver,’” Plona said. “Then I just sat down.”

Wierzbinski said that another staff member took the rest of the class into an empty classroom and talked to them about the incident. “It’s a scary thing for kids to witness,” she said.

While the students were being debriefed, Plona spent some time decompressing with Houle. It’s not just the kids who witness or experience such an incident who need to come to terms with it, Houle said. The person who did the CPR “also needs to be helped through their emotions and their feelings,” she said.

“I was a little bit shaken up,” Plona admitted.

A course in CPR, first aid and use of the AED is offered every other year to school staff by Lt. Donna Sanford of the Baltic Fire Engine Company #1. Ironically, the next class was slated for this Wednesday. Plona and Ethan were invited to the fire department so that Plona could receive an award for her actions.

Though the course isn’t compulsory, Plona, who has been teaching for four years, opted to participate “just in case.”

“I wouldn’t want to be unprepared for that [kind of emergency],” she said. “Who knows what would have happened?”

Ethan certainly knows. He arrived at school this week with a handmade envelope containing pictures and a book he wrote for Plona. “Thank you for saving my life,” he wrote. “Sayles School is the best school ever.”

His classmates know, too. Plona said that since the incident, the number of times she’s had to ask students to remove inappropriate things from their mouths “has dramatically decreased.”

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