Sag Harbor teacher, students lobby for teaching of CPR

While teacher Susan Denis, left, and other classmates

While teacher Susan Denis, left, and other classmates at Sag Harbor's Pierson Middle-High School watch, 10th grader Arlena Burns, 15, demonstrates CPR techniques on a practice dummy on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas)

The thick scrapbook in Pierson High School health teacher Sue Denis' classroom chronicles, in articles and emails, her students' 20-year-plus history of lifesaving experiences.

Former students at the Sag Harbor school tell of performing CPR while on vacation or on a relative in respiratory distress. One graduate shared how he used the Heimlich maneuver on someone who was choking. Denis recalled the story of a former sophomore who performed CPR when his father went into cardiac arrest, and how the dad lived another seven years.

"I've had quite a number of saves through the years," said Denis, who trains every Pierson High School student in CPR and first aid. "The kids aren't afraid to do it . . . to act."


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Denis and her students, along with the American Heart Association, now are lobbying Albany to pass legislation for implementation of hands-only CPR training in high schools statewide, as part of either the health or the physical education curriculum.

They are asking the state to require schools to include 30 minutes within the curriculum to teach CPR -- just simple chest compressions. The requirement, they said, would save many lives.

"It's a recommended course of curriculum for health education currently in New York State, but there's nothing to say that schools have to offer the education," said Robin Vitale, the heart association's senior director of government relations.

The bill was approved by the Assembly's Education Committee earlier this month and also has been approved by that chamber's Ways & Means Committee. It is awaiting action in the Assembly Rules Committee. The full Senate has approved the measure.

Lobbied in Albany

Denis and a group of students traveled to Albany earlier this month to lobby for the legislation.

At Pierson, Denis and her instructors train all Sag Harbor students in seventh- and 10th-grade health classes in the American Heart Association's Heartsaver CPR AED course.

The course, which the association believes to be one of the foremost lifesaving curricula in the country, teaches CPR techniques and use of an AED, or automated external defibrillator. The portable medical device analyzes the heart's rhythm and can deliver an electric shock if needed.

Each year, about 150 Pierson students are trained in CPR. Denis also offers several evening CPR classes each year for the community, so more than 50 adults are trained each year.

In addition, she teaches students in grades 10-12 who enroll in her CPR Instructor Class, an elective course, how to train others in lifesaving skills. They can get three college credits from Suffolk County Community College for taking the course.

Denis started her effort at Pierson, her alma mater, after she found her father collapsed in the driveway of her home and she could do nothing to help him. He died. She was 24 at the time.

"I never wanted anyone to feel the way I felt that day," said Denis, who began teaching at Pierson in 1993.

The CPR Instructor Course began as an after-school club. With support from the district administration, Denis broadened it to a half-year course, in which 15 to 20 students are trained and certified as CPR and first-aid instructors.

Hands-on training

The CPR Instructor Course includes hands-on training on manikins -- as they are known in medical usage -- of both adults and infants. Students learn more advanced lifesaving skills as well, such as how to use a bag-valve mask resuscitator.

On a recent afternoon, 10th-grader Arlena Burnes, 15, demonstrated the proper way to perform chest compressions on a manikin.

"So many people could be saved just by doing the 30-minute course," she said.

Two years ago, at the age of 15, student Emma Romeo said she used the Heimlich maneuver to help a 2-year-old victim choking on crackers at a beach club in Bridgehampton.

"Knowing what to do made it a lot easier to stay calm," said Romeo, now a 17-year-old senior.

Some Long Island school districts, including Levittown, Long Beach, Lynbrook and Southampton, have offered some instruction in emergency response and CPR.

In Levittown, a CPR elective is open to all high school students. Most take it in 11th or 12th grade, and more than 30 students are certified each year. This year, the staff certified 20 students from MacArthur High School and 60 students at Division High School, district officials said.

Athletic director Keith Snyder said the district would like to expand CPR and first-aid training to more students.

"We feel we have done some training, but we have more to do," Snyder said. "So when these students graduate, they become citizens who can respond to an emergency and make a difference. "

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