A heartbeat away: Quick action, preparedness and training save a student’s life at Cedar Valley

It can happen in an instant. In a heartbeat.

One second, it’s a beautiful afternoon at Cedar Valley Middle School. Kids are running around the track on a late November day in the just-warm-enough embrace of a Texas winter sun. But it only takes a fraction of a second for the calm to shatter, and school staff must be ready just that quickly to react.

A few weeks ago, a Cedar Valley eighth-grader collapsed on the school track. Unresponsive, he stopped breathing and no one could find a pulse. If not for the fast action of a team of people—a school nurse, coaches, a school resource officer, a fellow student—and, perhaps most importantly, the presence of an automated external defibrillator (AED), Ruben Lozano may not have survived.

Ruben, a Cedar Valley football player, was running the track with his teammates during off-season conditioning when he became winded. Though he wanted to push through the discomfort, both head football Coach Don Willis and Coach John Walton were concerned.

“Coach Walton told him to rest and asked him if he wanted to go to the nurse,” Willis said. Ruben didn’t think he needed to see the nurse, but he stepped off the track to take a break. “He’s an effort kind of a kid, a great kid,” Walton said.

Seconds later, from 20 yards away, Coach Walton saw it happen.

“John looked and me and said, ‘Oh my god, Don, he’s falling.’ I turned around and I saw Ruben going down,” Willis recalled. “It looked like in the movies…It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Willis ran to Ruben, while Walton and a student sprinted to the school building. The student managed to get to the nurse and direct School Resource Officer Larry Niedzialek—who heard the emergency call on his radio—to the track in less than a minute. It didn’t take Willis long to realize the seriousness of Ruben’s condition.

“I could see he was struggling to breathe,” he said. Thankfully, a school employee was standing close by and had her cell phone in hand. Willis shouted to her to call 911. School nurse Michelle Carlson arrived on the scene, her mind already focused on what she needed to do first.

“It’s a triage situation when you respond to an emergency,” she said. “He was lying crumpled on the ground. We repositioned him carefully, but I could not get a pulse.”

Carlson said she knew at that point something was wrong with Ruben’s heart. She used her radio to call for one of the school’s AED units. Coach Walton raced to get it.

“I was just saying a little prayer for Ruben as I was running up the hall,” Walton said. “And thinking, I’ve got to get to this AED, and I’ve got to get it back out here so that we can do what we’re trained to do.”

Niedzialek, or “Officer Larry” as the students call him, arrived just in time to see Carlson placing the AED pads on Ruben’s chest and administer the first shock. By that point, Ruben was not breathing. He was turning blue.

The computer voice of the AED, which provides verbal directions for users, said to continue CPR.

“I held his airway open, while Michelle did compressions, then we swapped,” Niedzialek said. Recounting the story, Niedzialek, a burly, uniformed man, teared up, his voice thick with emotion.

“As I was doing chest compressions, he started breathing. I almost lost it,” he said. “All I could think about was his mom and dad at work, not knowing.”

EMS crews arrived soon after, relieved Carlson and Niedzialek and were able to get Ruben stable before transporting him to Dell Children’s Hospital.

Because Ruben went into sudden cardiac arrest, doctors recommended surgery and implanted a Cardioverter Defibrillator. There is little doubt that the AED used on campus saved his life.

“It was invaluable,” Carlson said of the AED. “I wish we had them in lots of public places.”

Incredibly, Carlson had never used an AED before, other than on a training dummy. She credits the training Round Rock Independent School District provides with preparing her, as well as Willis, Walton and Niedzialek, to know exactly what to do.

“I was so thankful for the training that I had and that we worked together as a team to provide the best outcome for this student,” she said.

Cedar Valley Principal Zac Oldham could not be more proud of his team at Cedar Valley, and how everyone involved responded.

“For someone to recall that training and bring it back so instantly like our team did, and to do it so calmly and quickly to save a student’s life, it was unbelievable,” he said. “I’m just so proud to be part of that team. They’re amazing.”

Full Video on YouTube.