The terrifying episode began as writing specialist Vanessa Veal’s 1st-grade students at PS 75 in the South Bronx filed into class after lunch, and she looked to the back of the room and saw a 6-year-old girl with her hands around her throat.
“That’s a classic symbol of choking, so I went over and asked her if she could speak,” Veal said. “She shook her head no, so I knew it was serious.”
Wasting no time, Veal told two boys to run and get the school nurse right away, while she performed the Heimlich maneuver. She did it three times, explaining to the girl what she was going to do and that it would not hurt, and asking her to say her name each time. The girl was silent until the fourth time, when she was finally able to say “Ms. Veal” very hoarsely.
Just then the nurse arrived, in time to find the chunk of apple that had been lodged in the child’s airway and was now in the back of her mouth.
“Any of us would have done it,” Veal says modestly about her lifesaving work that day. But unfortunately, not everyone knows the technique.
Veal, a 19-year teacher, first learned the Heimlich maneuver as a flight attendant back in the 1980s and received training again two years ago as a member of her school’s emergency response team.
The school has drills where members of the emergency response team practice what they have learned “and I read my manual and try to stay up on it,” Veal said. She’s a strong advocate for the training, recommending it especially for parents and teachers.
She wasn’t nervous as she performed the lifesaving maneuver. “When it happens, you just react,” Veal said. “But once it was over, I started shaking all over. It’s mind-boggling.”
During the whole ordeal, she recalled, the entire class of 28 children was silent. “Usually that class is a handful, so I thanked them afterwards,” she said.
After being treated on-site, the 6-year-old returned to class later that day with a thank-you sticker for Veal and a story to tell her classmates.
Phyllis Murray, Veal’s longtime colleague and a former chapter leader at PS 75, said that the episode showed how teachers are there for their students in every way.
“So many good things happen in the classroom, but they don’t seem to get heard,” Murray said.