In many schools, time is marked precisely by the hands of wall clocks that count out class periods with a tick every 60 seconds. A distinct, authoritative tick. A tick to signal recess. Or lunch. Or the last class of the day.
For Levittown eighth-grader Jessica Lemus, the clock at Wisdom Lane Middle School started ticking at 11:07 a.m.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Seven dangerous minutes.
Seven frantic minutes.
Seven minutes, a roomful of teachers, a school nurse, and an AED.
"Class had just started," said Carole Going, Levittown special education science teacher and Levittown Teachers Association member.
"I sat down at my computer to take attendance. I heard [co-teacher] Ann Marie Carlson say, 'Are you OK?' I heard a gurgling noise. Jessica was sitting on her stool [at the lab table].
She flipped backward and smacked her head on the table behind her. Ann Marie ran to her. We thought Jessica was having a seizure."
Going pressed the emergency call button and hustled the other students into the hallway. She kicked off her high heels and ran barefoot to the classroom of colleague Meghan Olson, a former lifeguard, calling her to help.
Jessica was blue. Olson checked her pulse. Nothing. Her breathing. Nothing. "When I saw her, she was dead," Olson said.
Teachers Olson and Carlson performed CPR and chest compressions. Breath. Push. Breath.
Going contacted the school nurse, telling her to call an ambulance. She sent a teacher to get the AED — Automated External Defibrillator — from the end of the hallway as she helped with CPR, talking to Jessica as she worked on her. Another teacher, Valerie Carrillo, ran to fetch health teacher Jordan Dasch.
Dasch took a turn administering CPR. School nurse Carol Fitzpatrick, a CSEA member, was on the floor with Jessica doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She then began attaching the AED, Going said, as Dasch continued chest compressions.
The AED shocked Jessica three times. She breathed. Her heart pumped. "Without that AED she wouldn't be alive," Going said.
One minute after the educators revived Jessica, the stretcher arrived. Going, by now wearing flip-flops, rode in the ambulance with Jessica to a hospital.
For seven minutes, Jessica had not taken a breath on her own. "We didn't know if she had brain damage," Olson said.
Teachers and school health care professionals waited anxiously to hear if the 12-year-old would be OK.
"That night I sat with my husband, and I kept asking myself, 'Did I do it right?'" Olson said of her CPR skills.
The next morning, Jessica was still on a ventilator. A week later, it was determined she needed major open heart surgery related to an existing heart condition that, unnoticed, had gotten worse, said Going, who traveled twice to a Boston hospital to visit her.
After Jessica's collapse, administrators promptly sent out a memo to make sure a CPR-trained teacher is in every hallway. Luckily for Jessica, "every teacher in that hallway knows CPR," Going said.
The union also advocated for AED training, and some sessions have been provided, said John Caulfield, school counselor and president of the 900-member Levittown TA.
"Parents entrust us with their kids every day to keep them healthy and safe," he said.
Since 2002, New York State law requires an AED in each instructional school facility. NYSUT advocated strongly for the law, working with former Port Jervis teacher Rachel Moyer, who lost a son in a cardiac incident in school (http://gregaed.org) and with the Louis Acompora Foundation.
Moved by the enormity of the life-saving event, Going's husband bought an AED for his business, and neighbors in their community are working to get one for their block.
Going is now a volunteer for the Acompora Foundation, where she helps register individuals age 12 to 25 for heart screening. The foundation counts Jessica's life as its 88th save.
Jessica, who now has an internal defibrillator, returned to school in February, five months after her heart stopped. On her first day back, the quiet girl sat for a while with school counselor and TA member Christine Elder to take it all in. Elder gave her a bracelet that says, "Strong. Beautiful. Brave."
"All of the things that Jessica is," Elder said.
The strong and brave teachers who saved Jessica's life will be recognized at an annual community dinner this month along with EMT and firefighter heroes who stood out this year for their actions.
"We're educators. Our goal is to make the world a better place," Going said.
Did you know?
The Louis Acompora Foundation, named after a 14-year-old who died after a blow to the chest in his first high school lacrosse game, provides CPR and AED training and funds to help purchase AEDs. Visit www.la12.org to learn more.