APRIL 26, 2022 | A fifth-grade teacher at Stevan Dohanos Elementary School can now add the title of hero to her resume after she successfully performed the Heimlich maneuver on a student choking on a mint, something she said was the scariest moment of her teaching career.
On April 19, students in Aftan Cunningham’s class were completing the Ohio State Test in math and getting ready for lunch when two students approached her desk in a panic. One student was pleading for Aftan to help his classmate, who he thought was choking.
Cunningham said she turned to 11-year-old Ricardo Reyes and immediately noticed something was wrong.
“I looked at him first because I wanted to make sure he was choking,” she said. “He had his hand on his chest, and he was nodding his head yes and moving toward the trash can like he wanted to throw up, but nothing was coming out.”
Quick thinking, the teacher ushered the student toward the classroom’s alcove and away from his classmates. That’s when she noticed the direness of the situation: his chest wasn’t moving.
“I could see oxygen wasn’t flowing,” she said. “That’s when I knew he was really, really choking, and it was not just a cough.”
Cunningham’s next movements were quick and decisive. She grabbed the phone, called the main office, told them there was a choking student in room 211, hung up, wrapped her arms around the student, placed her hand around her fist, and pulled back hard.
“I did like six thrusts on him, and it popped out of his throat – a mint,” she said. “It hit the floor, and he just sat down on a chair. That’s when I just hugged him and kept telling him, ‘I’m so glad you are OK.’ ”
Ricardo said his throat was a little sore, but it felt good to breathe again.
Cunningham's seconds-long phone call sent Principal Maire Deshuk, Assistant Principal Monique Stewart, and school nurse Amy Chapman rushing to Cunningham’s classroom. They arrived just in time for the celebration.
“By the time we got upstairs, the children are pouring out of the alcove screaming, ‘She saved a life. Our teacher is a hero,’ ” said Deshuk. “They were so excited. I immediately wanted to hug her because I know that kind of moment is a lot for a teacher… Although we were running to get up there, she did what she was trained to do. Thank God Lorain City Schools did CPR training in the fall.”
As for Ricardo, Cunningham said after a trip to the nurse’s office; he went to lunch, where all his classmates wanted to sit with him to make sure he was OK.”
"They were kind of worried about me, but I was fine," he said. "My friend Alex tried to help me first, but he wasn't strong enough like Mrs. Cunningham."
Cunningham joined Lorain City Schools six years ago after working in education with the Peace Corps in China and completing her graduate studies degree in Comparative and International Education. She said she missed the classroom and soon applied to teach in Lorain, landing at Stevan Dohanos.
In October, American Red Cross CPR/First Aid Classes were offered to Lorain City Schools staff as part of the district’s Wellness Program. Led by two Lorain High teachers, Melissa Sayers and Molly Tyson, American Red Cross certified instructors, the blended online and in-person class cost staff members just $10. Cunningham said it was the best $10 she had ever spent.
“I’ve always wanted my CPR training, especially being in education and having two little kids a home,” she said. “I was so relieved when the district offered it to us. I have been waiting to do it because of the expense, but the district made it so affordable. I couldn’t pass it up.
Cunningham said the training taught her the technique of how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver and how to respond in an emergency.
“I knew to call someone first and then start. I knew to check for breathing,” she said. “And you see how it worked out.”