School nurse Haley Pepper was about to snack on a donut in her office the morning of Sept. 20, 2019 when she heard a plea for help at Gateway Science Academy South, the elementary school where she worked in St. Louis.
“I’m hearing somebody scream, ‘Nurse! Nurse! Nurse!” she recalled.
When she stepped out in the hallway, she saw the school’s vice principal of operations, Mehmet Okay, who yelled to follow him. She tossed the donut through the doorway toward her desk, ran after Mehmet and followed him downstairs to his office.
The school’s custodian was lying motionless on the sofa in Mehmet’s office.
He was not breathing. The custodian had been eating an apple while chatting with Mehmet when his head suddenly drooped. Haley would later learn that he had suffered a heart attack.
Haley shook the custodian and checked his pulse. Erkan Bayer, who is the school’s technology teacher, had also just walked into the office. Haley immediately started giving out orders to get assistance.
Erkan ran to get the AED equipment while Mehmet called 911. Haley, who has a bad back, also quickly realized she would need a stronger person to lift the custodian from the sofa and lay him flat on his back on the floor.
“I remembered the gym was nearby,” she said. “ I ran to the gym, scanned the room and got the P.E. teacher. I said ‘I need help. Follow me.’
P.E. teacher, Kenyon Klousia, and two other staff members had moved the custodian onto the floor just as the AED arrived. CPR was soon started while Erkan was on the phone with dispatchers who were also giving instructions on the emergency response.
As they performed CPR, Haley said she had no idea if the custodian had choked on his apple or something else had stopped his heart and breathing.
“We had to check carefully if our breaths were going in, and a few times there was apple pieces in his mouth that had to be cleared away,” she said. “So, we were constantly reassessing to make sure we were doing the right thing.”
Only three-and-half-minutes had passed by the time they started to use the AED and administered the first of two shocks. When paramedics arrived, the custodian was breathing and his pulse had returned.
“It was probably 15 minutes all around from the time we called 911 and by the time he was carried out to the hospital,” Haley recalled.
A week later, the custodian called the school to say hello as he recovered. Haley said she isn’t a runner, but she bolted to greet the custodian when he returned to the school weeks later to visit.
“I sprinted to go give him a hug when he came back to visit that day,” she said. “He started crying. I apologized for his sore ribs.”
As Haley reflects on the turn of events on Sept. 20, she said it was easy to make those decisions such as to call 911 and to get the custodian flat on his back. She said the hardest decision was realizing that she would need to do CPR on her friend.
“This isn’t something where I’m just putting a band-aid on someone,” she said. “This is serious…This just happened to my friend. Coming to grips with the fact that this is the problem was a hard decision.”
She is grateful that Kenyon was nearby to assist. They both had participated in CPR and AED training together that was developed by the American Heart Association (AHA) and provided by CPR Plus, an AHA Community Training Center.
“I couldn’t have grabbed a better person than the P.E. teacher,” she said. “I just thought I needed somebody strong to lift him off the couch. He was amazing. We both remembered our steps from training. We both remembered what each other would be doing.”
Haley has performed CPR before. But she never expected that she’d need to perform the life-saving skill that September morning as she took a break to eat a snack when there were no children in the clinic.
“It was the last thing on my mind that one of my staff members was going to have an emergency at work,” she said.