Students learn what it takes to save a life

Middle-school health class has never been as "lifesaving" as it was last week, as every Inver Grove Heights seventh- and eighth-grader received basic CPR training. The students learned the skills as part of their health class.

They were continuing a training process that began in October, when more than 70 School District 199 staff members took the American Heart Association Anytime Friends and Family CPR/AED training. Trainers from the Allina Heart Safe Communities program instructed staff in basic adult cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the use of an AED (automated external defibrillator) and the Heimlich maneuver.

In December, it was the students' turn to receive their emergency training. When it came time to learn how an AED worked, Allina trainers showed the kids just how easy it is to operate the device, which reminds users that the kit includes a scissors to remove a victim's shirt and undergarments, and a razor to shave an excessively hairy chest prior to using the AED. The machine also warns users to stand clear when a shock is being automatically administered, and is able to tell the user if additional shocks are needed.

As the students closely watched the Allina instructors, the district's assistant tech facilitator Barb Heitzig quietly watched the students.

"This is wonderful," she said later. "This empowers them."

Barb personally knows that CPR and AED training is priceless. On Sept. 23, 2005, at the age of 33, she suffered a sudden cardiac arrest in the hallways of the middle school.

Barb was born with congenital heart disease and has had her share of cardiac problems. But a few weeks before her heart attack, her heartbeat dropped to 40 beats per minute (an average heart beats 60-100 times per minute).

Her cardiologist told her that she was actually safer at school, around people, than she was at home alone during the day. So despite the disturbing heart rate, she continued to come to work, telling only a few people of her condition.

One of the few people in whom she confided was school nurse Vicki Fisher, who joked, "Good thing we have those AEDs." The AEDs had only been in the school for a year on that Friday when Barb collapsed while walking with fellow staff member Linda Potts outside the middle-school library.

While Linda called for help, someone else ran to get Vicki. The nurse was nearby, and so was the AED.

"If you're going to have a heart attack, that was the place to have one," Barb said.

However, the timing was unfortunate in that a nearby accident had tied up the Advanced Life Support ambulances from Inver Grove Heights and nearby communities. Eighteen minutes later, an appropriate ambulance from Eagan arrived at the middle school. In the interim, Vicki and Linda took turns performing CPR even after using the AED, because Barb's pulse remained weak and irregular.

In addition, Vicki took ice from the school's training room and packed it around Barb as part of therapeutic hypothermia. Vicki, who also works as a nurse at Regions Hospital, had just learned the technique because the hospital was about to offer this therapy beginning Oct. 1, 2005.

"That was the first time my jobs had ever collided," Vicki noted.

The therapeutic hypothermia was continued after Barb was transported to Regions. Barb's recovery included a hospital stay (during which she was a patient in Vicki's cardiac intensive-care unit), an operation to have a pacemaker implanted, and a period where she couldn't work for more than a few hours at a time because of the traumas her body had endured.

She still doesn't remember much about her heart attack or the days that followed.

When Allina Heart Safe, which had sold the AEDs to District 199, learned that a defibrillator had been used, company representatives contacted the district to see if they could help in any other way. As a result, staff and students received the training that could save a life.

During the student training, Barb stopped by to meet the kids and to bring home the message that a person doing CPR or using an AED is likely to know the person who needs the help.

Vicki agreed, and later added, "If it could happen in our middle school, it could happen anywhere."

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