The guests for Herrick Middle School student Shanketh Kumar’s 13th birthday celebration this week were not a roomful of screaming teens, but a small crowd of ecstatic teachers, a principal and school nurses — the people who saved his young life when he collapsed at school, with no heartbeat and no breath.
“When I got there, he was laying looking up. His eyes were wide open. He was dead,” said school nurse Dana Lieberman.
Teamwork, training in CPR, the presence of an Automated External Defibrillator and quick, decisive action flipped his story.
A month later, he was eating Indian and Chinese food at a restaurant, celebrating his birthday. Becoming13 is certainly a major turning point, marking the official entry into the kingdom of teenagers. But, for this shy adolescent, it was an extraordinary milestone because, just a few weeks before, his world had closed up faster than the lock on a prison door.
Kumar was doing a warm-up lap on the outdoor track at his Nassau County school when he collapsed on the grassy, inside portion of the track, said physical education teacher Arthur Friess, a member of the Herricks Teachers Association.
“He was trying to complete his first warm-up when he collapsed,” said Friess. “The plan was to start our first day of football.”
Kumar, an eighth-grader, is no stranger to fitness: He played centerfield for the school’s baseball team last year. He said today that he has no recollection of what happened that day on the track.
“I came to in the hospital. I didn’t know what was happening,” he said.
When Kumar fell, face down, Friess thought the student had had a seizure.
“He was breathing. His hands were curled and cupped like showing signs of a seizure.” Friess bent down to monitor him. Colleague Joe Welsh sent the other students inside, called the nurse’s office and the principal, and called 911.
Part-time nurse Tracey Baumann ran out first and saw that his pulse was getting weaker. She sent Friess inside to get more medical information on Kumar. Nurse Lieberman had grabbed the “GO” bag of medical supplies and ran to the scene.
“He was not breathing. There was no pulse. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Lieberman, a Herricks TA member. She said she looked up, locked eyes with principal Joan Keegan, who was running out, and screamed at her to get the AED.
“She spun around,” Lieberman said.
Keegan spotted health teacher Pamela Seebald, who had just helped situate the students who were brought in from their outdoor gym class. As Seebald began walking out onto the field, Keegan yelled, “Get the AED. “
“Fortunately, due to our training, I am very well aware of the location of our AEDs and I was able to very quickly gain access to one of our coaches’ office and return to Shanketh,” Seebald recalled.
Using the CPR barrier, Lieberman said she blew into the boy’s lungs while Baumann and Welsh were doing compressions.
“They do 30 compressions. I do two breaths. They do 30 compressions. I do two breaths,” she said. “There was no reaction.”
You just do what you’re trained to do. It was the scariest day of my life,” Lieberman said.
With the arrival of the AED, she turned it on and put the connected pads on the upper right and lower left parts of his chest. The machine reads the heart, and then advises.
“It said ‘SHOCK ADVISED,’” she said.
Bam! The paddles lifted his chest.
“You could see his heart beating right in his chest,” Lieberman said. “He was gasping. We kept breathing for him.”
“Seeing him regain a pulse was truly remarkable, a moment in time none of us will ever forget,” Seebald said.
The fire department came and put on an oxygen mask on the student; Lieberman rode in an ambulance with Kumar to the hospital.
“It was bone chilling. I didn’t sleep for two weeks,” she said.
Kumar was taken to the local Winthrop Hospital, where he did not regain consciousness until the next day. He was later transferred to New York Presbyterian Hospital where he had surgery to have an internal defibrillator installed in his heart. He said he spent two weeks in the hospital, where the crew who saved his life came to visit him in small groups.
Lieberman said the Winthrop Hospital emergency room staff approached to congratulate her for saving Kumar’s life.
“It wasn’t just me. Everyone thought of everything,” she said.
And so it was. The Herricks Middle School handbook is titled, “Respect. Responsibility. Readiness.” And that was the form of the day.
At the time of Kumar’s collapse, Principal Keegan printed out the boy’s demographic information on file so they would have it for the ambulance crew; his medical records were checked as well. She made sure a nearby drain on the field was checked so medical responders didn’t trip in it. She contacted personnel at the school Kumar’s younger brother attends so they could speak to him and nurture him. They wanted to be sure he heard news from them first.
“In this day of technology, word gets out quickly,” Keegan said.
The day after the event, Keegan had a school psychologist from another building, who is trained in crises, come to meet with the Herricks school responders for a debriefing. After the adrenalin rush is over, she said, rescuers are often faced with concerns about whether or not they did everything correctly. At that point, Kumar had still not regained consciousness.
“Everyone worked diligently and instinctively to make sure all of our students were taken care of during the incident,” said Herricks TA President Nidya Degliomini. “Gym classes were brought inside, blinds were drawn and students quietly kept away from windows to keep the incident private, members directed the ambulance to quickly find its way to field, calls were made to alert the parents as quickly as possible. It is heartwarming to know that my members acted instinctively as the village that worked together to save a life and kept all our students in mind.”
“They did a good job. They saved my son,” said Kumar’s mother, Achala.
On the day of his collapse, she was called at work where she does medical billing for a psychiatrist. She said she handed the phone to her boss and he asked some specific questions. Then she raced to the hospital.
“The next day, he woke up. He recognized us,” she said. Her husband, Kumar’s father, also has an internal defibrillator in his heart – although he never had an incident this dramatic.
Kumar said he does not like all the attention he is receiving now that he is back in school, but other than that, he said: “I love it here. It’s fun and welcoming.”
“When this happened, every one of us decided we were going to do whatever it took to keep him alive. It was the classic definition of teamwork … This incident proves how important an AED actually is. It saved his life!” Friess said.
NYSUT was active in advocating for the 2002 state law making it a requirement to have AEDs in schools. Other advocates included former teacher Rachel Moyer and the AED activist family of Lou Acompora.
The traumatic event at Herricks also shows the importance of having a school nurse in every building, Lieberman said. There are 1,000 students and 120 staff at her school; Baumann is there three hours a day.
“It makes a huge difference to have somebody who is trained and is a nurse. It shows you how important a school nurse is,” Lieberman said.
NYSUT has been advocating for a state law making it a requirement to have a school nurse in every building, beginning with large cities.
Lieberman said that the incident is a reminder to all, especially those who work with children, that training in CPR and AED, and in the use of EPI pens and Narcan, is vitally important
“I never ever thought I‘d have to do that on a kid,” she said. “I thought if we ever had to do that (use an AED and administer CRP), it would be on a grandparent coming to a concert.”
The Herrick school board is scheduled to honor these lifesavers at its Thursday night meeting.