heather peterson

Heather Peterson saved a boy's life May 8 by performing the Heimlich maneuver. Scroll to the bottom of this story to learn how to tell when someone is choking and how to perform the lifesaving technique.

KNOXVILLE - Something about the first-grader in the school lunchroom didn’t look right to Heather Peterson. But he did just the right thing, and she saved his life.

Peterson, a special education associate at West Elementary School, was roaming the lunchroom May 8 when she noticed the boy. Lunch duty usually involves helping kids open milk cartons, not seeing a boy with hands clutched to his throat.

She ran to him and asked if he was OK.

A shake of his head meant he wasn’t.

The colors his face was turning were another strong clue.

Peterson lifted the boy in front of her and wrapped her hands around him, putting them above his belly button. She thrusted them in and up.

“I did that twice and a chunk of an apple actually came out!” she said.

It fell harmlessly to the ground, and Peterson hustled him off to get checked out by school nurse Angie Mitchell. He was was fine, perhaps better off than his hero.

“I was a little more shaken up than he was,” she sighed Tuesday, the emotion surging back. “It was like ‘Oh, my God, I just did the Heimlich!

“Instincts and adrenaline, it just all kicked in. I’m just fortunate that I had the skills.”

Nurse Mitchell seconds that opinion.

“It’s great to know that people know what to do when they need to it it,” she said.

At least Peterson knew. Although the boy gave the perfect signal to show he was choking, his lunch mates clammed up, she said.

“In the lunchroom, if somebody’s tooth falls out and they see blood, they scream and I run over there,” she said. “But I didn’t hear anybody scream my name. It was like they didn’t know what was going on.”

Erin Prevo, West’s health associate, was quick to remedy that. She made the rounds to classrooms, reminding students to get an adult’s help when they or a classmate are choking.

Peterson shies from the spotlight but is quick to urge others to learn the Heimlich maneuver and other lifesaving skills. She last was trained as a teenager, but remembered when it counted. People can learn a lot from online First Aid videos on Youtube, she said.

“I don’t see myself as a hero. I just did what needed to be done,” she said. “You don’t have to be a certified, trained individual to be able to save someone’s life.”

Sitting at a dining room table piled with mementoes for her son’s high school graduation party this weekend, Peterson finds perspective two weeks after the incident.

“That kid’s OK,” she said. “He gets to live another day, like a normal first grader running around.”

And things are back to normal at West, for the most part. Apples are still on the lunch menu, and the boy likes his apples. He just smiles and promises Peterson he’ll take smaller bites.

He’ll also ask her, in a first grader’s innocent way, whether she remembers him.

“I say ‘Buddy, I’ll never forget you!’”


When someone is choking

The universal sign for choking is hands clutched to the throat. Also look for these indications:

  • Inability to talk
  • Difficulty breathing or noisy breathing
  • Cough, which may either be weak or forceful
  • Skin, lips and nails turning blue or dusky
  • Skin that is flushed, then turns pale or bluish in color
  • Loss of consciousness

To perform the Heimlich maneuver:

  • Stand behind the person. Place one foot slightly in front of the other for balance. Wrap your arms around their waist. Tip the person forward slightly. If a child is choking, kneel down behind the child.
  • Make a fist with one hand. Position it slightly above the person's navel.
  • Grasp the fist with the other hand. Press hard into the abdomen with a quick, upward thrust — as if trying to lift the person up.
  • Perform between six and 10 abdominal thrusts until the blockage is dislodged.
  • Sources: Mayo Clinic, American Red Cross

Pat Finan is the managing editor of the Journal-Express. He can be reached in the newsroom at 641-842-2155 or via email at pfinan@journalexpress.net.

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