I am not a medical professional. I am a teacher. But on a fateful night in a school gym, I learned that one’s title does not affect one’s ability to help save a life.
With three daughters who love volleyball and play year-round, I have attended more matches than I can count. There are things you come to expect at every game—exceptional digs, well played hits and strategically placed sets. What you don’t expect is to watch a 17-year-old grab her chest and collapse right before your eyes.
But that’s exactly what happened on a Tuesday night at Loganville Christian Academy (LCA).
As a member of the academic administration at LCA, I have been a part of our Code Blue Response Team since 2006. With the help of Project S.A.V.E., a team of 16 school employees—ranging from administrators to teachers to our CFO—have been trained to use automated external defibrillators (AEDs). An AED is a portable device that checks the heart’s rhythm and can send an electric shock to the heart to restore normal rhythm. More specifically, AEDs are used to treat sudden cardiac arrest.
For the past seven years, we’ve participated in drills at least three times a year that tasked us with responding to codes at various locations throughout campus, from the parking lot to our lunchroom.
Claire’s senior volleyball portrait.
This training prepared me for the life-changing event that took place Oct. 13, 2015, shortly after 6 p.m. Claire Crawford, one of our players, had just served the ball to the opposing team and moved into her position by the net as the setter.
The chilling sound of her fall still rings in my mind today. Claire’s parents, Eric and Lisa, were the first to arrive at her side. I stayed back for a moment, giving them space, as we all thought she had passed out. Immediately, Mallory McQuaig, the athletic trainer, and Telessa Kendell, a teammate’s mother, rushed to her side and began to assess her vitals. No pulse. No heartbeat. No breathing. No color.
I looked at someone in the concession stand and told them to call 911 as I was running for the AED. Luckily, the AED was only 35 short steps away from where Claire had fallen which allowed us to have the AED by her side within 32 seconds.
People have asked me a thousand times what those next few minutes were like. Despite years of CPR and AED training, I was nervous. Very nervous. I was literally watching life withdraw from this child—a child I’d watched blossom into a high school senior, star student and accomplished athlete over many years.
Time slowed to a crawl. In my mind, everything played out over about 10 minutes. There is a video that dispels my notion of timing and cuts everything almost in half. That night happened to be Senior Night, and Claire’s parents just happened to have a video camera set up to record the game. That video camera captured the entire experience.
Thanks to the video, we know this to be the approximate 4.5-minute timeline of key moments:
:00 Claire grabs chest
:03 Claire hits floor
:16 911 called
:32 AED arrives
:56 CPR begins
1:17 AED turned on
1:43 Pads applied
1:58 AED analyzing begins
2:18 AED advises a shock
2:23 AED advises a shock
2:26 AED administers 120 joules
2:30 CPR continued
3:27 CPR discontinued
4:29 Life returns
Did you notice that “advises a shock” has two entries? The AED gave the first command to administer a shock at 2:18. But in that very moment, I froze.
Despite my years of training and the verbal reinforcement from the AED to administer the shock, I doubted myself and the machine. The device is no joke; it can deliver several hundred joules of power. Was I, a teacher with no formal medical training, really capable of following through with this? Could I really trust this machine to make the right call?
I looked across Claire’s lifeless body and straight into the eyes of our athletic trainer who had been administering CPR. I said, “It’s telling me to shock her.” She looked me in the eye and, without hesitation, told me to press that button. Her reassurance was invaluable. In fact, it gave me the confidence I needed to push the flashing button. Five seconds later, the device again advised me to administer a shock.
This time, I pressed that button.
That was the turning point. After additional CPR, color returned to Claire’s cheeks. Her eyes opened. She began breathing and making noise. Her first words were, “Oh no! Did I pass out?”
The joy and relief that filled our hearts in that moment cannot be put into words.
We did it.
The paramedics arrived six minutes later. When we told them we had administered a shock, they told us what we had just done had saved her life.
Claire and Julie at school after the incident.
In the coming weeks, we learned Claire had an undiagnosed heart condition that required triple bypass surgery. We also learned that she was in something called V-fib, or ventricular fibrillation, meaning her heart was in a quivering state. We had about 4.5 minutes to bring her heart back into a viable rhythm before further damage would occur. Consequently, CPR would not have been enough. She needed a shock that only can be delivered by an AED.
The ambulance arrived 11 minutes after we called 911. Eleven minutes is a commendable response time, but it would have been too late for Claire.
In addition to learning more about the cause of Claire’s cardiac arrest, we also learned details that will bring chills to even the harshest of skeptics.
That Monday night, just 24 hours before it all happened, the girls had been playing an away game at another school. That school had an AED near its gym, but that school did not have working batteries in that AED.
Take a minute to let that sink in.
If Claire had suffered sudden cardiac arrest just 24 hours prior, there’s no telling how long it would have taken to find replacement batteries. Those batteries would have meant the difference between life and death.
Just three weeks before that, Claire had been on a mission trip in the mountains of Honduras. Tell me how many AEDs you think they would have had access to there?
The doctors shared that in order to discover Claire’s hidden heart condition, the incident had to happen just the way it did. That’s a scary thought. She needed to go into V-fib in a place where people could quickly respond and have access to a working AED, and where she would be surrounded by people who were prepared to assess vital signs and start CPR.
Today, we have five AEDs on campus; three that are permanently stationed throughout the school and two that travel to away games and school field trips.
Later this year, Claire will graduate and go on to college. Because our school saw AEDs as a worthy and necessary investment.
Because our school put the time and resources into training staff to effectively respond to sudden cardiac arrest.
Because our school’s staff regularly tests our AEDs to make sure they are in working order.
While Claire recovered from open heart surgery, her team played the rest of the season in her honor. For the first time in the team’s history, they made it to the final four.
Whether you are a parent, a school administrator or just a concerned citizen, I beg you to do what you can to ensure your schools and organizations are prepared. And if you haven’t undergone AED or CPR certification, make it a priority this year.
I am a teacher. A teacher who, with help from a tremendous support team, helped saved the life of a teenager on a Tuesday night in a high school gym.
If I can do it, you can do it.
Visit the Project S.A.V.E. home page to learn more about becoming a HeartSafe school.
Interested in supporting Project S.A.V.E.? Help Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta purchase training materials used for HeartSafe certification here.