How to save a life: Teachers band together to revive girl who had heart attack at school

Jessica and Carole (2)

Long Island middle school teacher Carole Going texts her student Jessica every day. Even just a simple exchange of “How are you feeling today?” and “Good, thanks!” can calm Going’s nerves. “I didn’t know her very well before the event happened,” she says. “We only had eight classes by that point.”

A month and a half ago, Jessica was in science class when she suffered a sudden cardiac arrest.

Going says it was her co-teacher, Ann Marie Carlson, who first noticed Jessica appeared weak: “She started to ask ‘Are you OK?’” but couldn’t even get all the words out before Jessica fell back on the floor.”

Going corralled the rest of the students out into the hall and ran to the next room to find another teacher, Meghan Olsen, who used to lifeguard and has kept up with her CPR certification. Olsen discovered that Jessica had no pulse and immediately began CPR.

While Going went to call the nurse, another teacher, Valerie Carrillo, summoned the school’s health teacher, Jordan Dasch, and the school nurse, Carol Fitzpatrick. Going asked another teacher, Barry Spainer, to grab the school’s automatic external defibrillator (AED). Once the AED had been retrieved, Fitzpatrick and Dasch attached it to Jessica. Two shocks later, Jessica took her first, feeble breath.

By the time the ambulance arrived, school staff had been doing CPR for seven minutes, and the AED shocked Jessica one more time as she entered the vehicle. She continued to breathe, strenuously, with a very weak pulse. Going rode in the ambulance with Jessica to Nassau University Medical Center, where she met Jessica’s mother and relayed the whole story. It soon became apparent that Jessica would need more complex cardiac care, so she was transferred to Long Island Jewish Medical Center and then, in turn, to the Heart Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Emergency surgery

Jessica had been seeing a cardiologist regularly for a known valve abnormality as well as a hole in her heart. As a result of these two problems, the right side of her heart was enlarged, but Jessica did not have any cardiac symptoms before her event.

In Boston, Jessica and her family met with cardiologist Dr. Puja Banka, electrophysiologist Dr. Ed Walsh, and cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Pedro del Nido, as well as multiple other team members. They reviewed her data and decided Jessica should have open-heart surgery to repair her heart. In advance of surgery, Dr. Walsh performed an electrophysiology study, which uses a special catheter to send electric signals to the heart and record its rhythym to detect abnormalities. Dr. Walsh determined Jessica would need an implanted defibrillator in addition to her valve repair.

del Nido then performed the open-heart surgery to repair Jessica’s valve, close the hole in her heart and implant the defibrillator. She was able to go home two weeks later and has since recovered very well.

Going drove to Boston twice to visit Jessica while she was hospitalized, and also visited her at home when she returned.

AED advocacy saves lives

“My co-workers and I are now advocating for AEDs in all schools and mandatory CPR training for all teachers, not just coaches,” says Going.

AEDGoing knew the reason her school was required to have an AED on site was Louis’s Law, which has been on the books in New York state since spring 2002. Louis J. Acompora died of sudden cardiac arrest in 2000 after a blow to his chest while playing lacrosse during his first high school game. He was fourteen years old. Louis’s mother, Karen Acompora, started the Louis J. Acompora Foundation and made it her mission to enforce AED compliance in public schools across the state.

Acompora also joined Parent Heart Watch, which started as a group of parents who have lost children to sudden cardiac arrest and has since expanded to include citizen advocates, clinicians and parents of survivors. The group has an extensive, highly engaged medical advisory board that holds an annual conference and composes clinical guidelines for determining if a patient has a cardiac rhythm problem.

“We had to do something,” says Acompora, speaking for herself and her family. “We learned that there was equipment out there that would have saved Louis’s life. His friends were terrified that it would happen to them, that they would either be the one to get hurt or the one to cause harm. We had to do something … we didn’t have a choice.”

Looking ahead

Since Louis’s Law was enacted, at least 88 lives have been saved by AEDs on New York school property, says Acompora. “When I speak on the road, I hear about more and more,” she adds. “So many go unreported.”

Only 21 states have a law like Louis’s Law (a law mandating AEDs in all public schools) on the books.

“After Louis died, my state and my school did something,” says Acompora. “Other parents have not had the same experience.”

Jessica has a bright future ahead of her and not just because of the internal defibrillator that will protect her from future life-threatening cardiac events.

Before del Nido could perform the surgery that would heal and protect Jessica’s heart, the young girl’s life was saved thanks in part to fast-acting, well-trained school staff like Going and the work of passionate advocates like Acompora.

If your school, town, school district or state does not require AEDs and CPR training for staff, become a champion for the cause. Your efforts could help save a life.

Learn more about Boston Children’s Hospital’s Basic Life Support Training