By Annette Hinkle
Last month, 19-year-old Erick Saldivar was at a family gathering when he was called on to put to use a skill he learned as a sophomore in Sue Denis’ health class at Pierson High School.
And that skill saved a life.
With that act, Saldivar became one of nearly 30 former Pierson students who have used the CPR training they received in Denis’ class to respond to real life emergencies. These rescues have happened at train stations, near swimming pools and even during a school trip to France.
For Saldivar, it was at his aunt’s house in Southampton.
“It was my cousin’s birthday and my aunt’s birthday too,” recalled Saldivar. “It was a big party and it was 3 a.m. Some distant family members were spending the night because they live in Yonkers.”
Saldivar, who was in the basement at the time, heard a commotion in the living room overhead. But when he went upstairs, he said no one was telling him what was going on.
“Then someone yelled that my aunt was not breathing,” said Saldivar. “She was in the hallway on the second floor. Everyone was standing around her, I’m like, ‘Guys, you need to move,’ it took a minute to get them out of the way. Panicking isn’t going to do anything — there were more than 20 of us in the house, they needed to calm down.”
After moving the onlookers away from his aunt, he called 911 to report that she was in respiratory arrest and assessed her condition.
“When I got there, she was not breathing and had no pulse,” said Saldivar. “I started CPR chest compressions and she came back, but she was reaching out and couldn’t breathe. She started seizing and I thought back to Ms. Denis class about what to do, so my brother helped me move her onto her side.”
By the time paramedics arrived, Saldivar’s aunt was breathing with difficulty. So she was given oxygen and a shot to calm the seizures and taken to the hospital. After a day in the hospital, she was cleared to return home.
“What I found out later was my aunt had a history of seizures and stress can lead up to one,” says Saldivar. “She’s only 31 and had never gone into respiratory arrest like that. She does have high blood pressure, but we didn’t know about the seizures.”
Had Saldivar’s aunt not survived the incident, he would have lost not only a close family member, but his home. Saldivar only recently moved in with his aunt and her five children, who range in age from less than a year to 16.
“It did go through my mind. She can die,” said Saldivar. “It was a scary thought. It could’ve impacted everybody.”
“I know what it’s like to lose a family member close to me,” added Saldivar whose 16-year-old brother was killed in car accident in Southampton in 2009. “I want to prevent it if I can.”
And preventing death is Denis’ goal as well. Each year, Denis trains every seventh and 10th grader at Pierson Middle/High School in the American Heart Association Heart Saver CPR AED (which means Automated External Defibrillation). She’s been doing so since joining the staff of the school in 1993/94. While CPR technique has been updated and refined over the years, Denis’ insistence that every student going through Pierson learn CPR has remained steadfast and she wishes all students were required to know it.
“I’ve been to Albany with kids eight to 10 times asking the state to make it mandatory,” says Denis. “In Washington State you can’t graduate from high school or get a driver’s license without it. If you know it, and someone on the street collapses, at least you can call 911 and do chest compressions.”
Making sure as many people as possible know CPR is not only a mission for Denis — it’s also personal.
“My dad died of a heart attack when I was a young nurse and I wasn’t trained in CPR,” she said. “I found him in the driveway and I couldn’t help him. I remember it was opening day of scalloping season in 1979.”
Denis doesn’t just offer CPR training to Pierson students, she also holds CPR courses for the community throughout the year and on November 19, will take some of her Pierson certified students to Springs School to teach the 8th graders there.
For Saldivar, the training these students will receive may make the difference when they least expect it.
“The class definitely kept me thinking clearly,” he said. “As the old cliché goes, I never thought I’d use it.”
“One of my old teachers said I was a hero. But I’m just doing something anyone would’ve done,” added Saldivar, who, when asked what his aunt had to say about his life saving actions responded, “She said ‘thank you,’ — and that’s all I wanted to hear.”