By Tessa Raebeck
Madison McCarthy was just 5 years old when she went into sudden cardiac arrest in her kindergarten classroom in upstate New York. The principal of her school held Madison in his arms for 18 minutes waiting for help No one checked her breathing, no one performed CPR and Madison died waiting for help.
Pierson Middle-High School Health teacher Sue Denis and her student CPR instructors, backed by the American Heart Association and supporters like Madison’s mother, Suzy McCarthy, are now lobbying state politicians to ensure tragedies like Madison’s don’t happen again.
Having taught CPR at Pierson for 20 years this spring, Ms. Denis has instructed hundreds of students—who have saved 16 to 18 lives—to be instructors, but at schools across the state, CPR programs are neither mandated nor funded.
That could change very soon. After years of teachers, survivors and mourning relatives asking legislators to back a bill to require kids in New York to learn CPR before graduating high school, a bill passed the state Senate last week and the state Assembly on Tuesday, June 17. It is now waiting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature. If the governor signs the bill, it will then go for final approval to Commissioner John King and the Board of Regents, who will be responsible for whether CPR training is actually implemented into educational curriculums statewide.
“One step at a time,” Ms. Denis said Wednesday, June 18.
The American Heart Association says the requirement could help to save thousands of lives across the state each year. Nationwide, according to the AHA, approximately 424,000 people have cardiac arrest outside of a hospital every year—and only about 10 percent survive.
The survival rate fluctuates between 2 and 10 percent across New York State, Ms. Denis said, adding that in the 16 states where CPR certification is mandated for high school students, that survival rate can be as high as 50 percent.
A cardiac arrest can be brought on by 14 different causes, including drowning, getting hit in the heart, smoke inhalation, loss of blood and heart attacks, the latter which occur about every 30 seconds in the United States.
“There’s just so much in our diet and the way Americans live these days is just so unhealthy, that it’s a common occurrence to have a heart attack,” Pierson senior Caleb Atkinson-Barnes said while in Ms. Denis’s CPR instructor class Friday, June 13. “You could be anywhere and a person could go down—and knowing CPR will save that person’s life.”
Ms. Denis and four of her Pierson students—Arlena Burns, Joe Carlozzi, Emma Romeo and Alex Toscano—traveled to Albany Tuesday, June 3, to ask for the bill’s passage. They heard from Ms. McCarthy, Madison’s mom, and other families who lost loved ones who could have been saved had someone started CPR earlier.
Alex Toscano, a senior at Pierson and a CPR instructor, told state lawmakers that Ms. Denis has been teaching CPR since before she was born and that she cannot understand why every school doesn’t teach the life-saving skill.
Teaching students to save lives seems like a political no-brainer, but legislators have stalled bills in the past because they are hesitant to put another unfunded state mandate on New York’s already fiscally tight school districts.
“You would rather not support the bill then—God forbid, you’re ever in that situation where you need someone’s help—there’s less people around that know what to do?” Pierson senior and CPR instructor Emma Romeo said of the politicians in class Friday, prior to the bill’s passage. “Because I know if I was in that situation, I would want as many people around to help as possible.”
“You’re going to feel safer in any situation,” added classmate Sheila Mackey. “The fact that most of the teachers in our school don’t know CPR or in other schools don’t know CPR—I’m just surprised the bill hasn’t been passed, it’s a chance to save lives, why wouldn’t they go for it?”
Ms. Denis started at Pierson in the fall of 1993 and had convinced the administration to let her teach CPR by the spring of that school year. Her first graduates in 1994 are now among hundreds of students she has taught, “thousands probably,” she said.
“I’ve been so lucky here at Pierson and fortunate that I’ve always had the support of the whole administration—the principals, the superintendent and the board,” said Ms. Denis.
To her knowledge, about 30 of her students have performed CPR and 16 to 18 lives have been saved.
While working at the Bridgehampton Club, Ms. Romeo saved a little boy who was choking on a Goldfish cracker by performing the Heimlich maneuver.
Ms. Denis’s former student, Rich Simmons, now a fireman in the village, years ago performed CPR on a 65-year-old man whose boat capsized in Sag Harbor. He saved his life.
In September, Erick Saldivar, another former student of Ms. Denis, saved his aunt’s life when she went into respiratory arrest.
“She started seizing and I thought back to Ms. Denis’s class about what to do,” Mr. Saldivar told the Sag Harbor Express last October.
“You obviously are going to feel more confident in that situation knowing that you’ve been taught by someone who knows it so well like Ms. Denis, so you know exactly what to do,” Ms. Toscano said.
“What we always tell the kids,” said Ms. Denis, “is you’re never going to do CPR when it’s a nice, comfortable, relaxed environment. You’re going to do it in a really stressful, critical situation.”
“It’s a scary thing,” added student-instructor Zach Depetris. “It’s not something that you’re going to be able to do no matter what; it’s a life or death situation.”
Speaking of those who have died from cardiac arrests who were not aided by CPR, Ms. Mackey said, “They were just normal kids. They just went into cardiac arrest, just no one knew how to help them or what to do.”
“Our kids,” Ms. Denis said, “have shown again and again that they’re willing to step up to the plate and do it.”