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Heroic team effort and defibrillator saves middle-schooler’s life

Quick thinking, teamwork and the right equipment contributed to a good outcome when a young teen went into cardiac arrest at Redmond Junior High School last month.

A seventh-grade student named Levi Pocza, who had stayed home sick the day before, was in his physical education class on Nov. 6 and asked to get a drink of water just before the medical emergency occurred.

“We had just started P.E. We had done some stretching and started running back and forth,” said his teacher, Chris Broderick. “As he was heading toward the water fountain, he looked really grey. There’s a curtain that divides the gym — he collapsed on the other side of the curtain. Another gym teacher, Mike Thomas, called me over. [Levi] looked like he had been dropped from the sky. I knew it was serious. We were yelling, ‘Call 911! I need help in the gym!’ Mike stayed with Levi as I ran to the office and he said, ‘He doesn’t have a pulse.’”

Broderick and school principal Prato Barone began administering CPR to Pocza. Barone did the chest compressions while Broderick did the breathing. Football coach Scott Hagerman ran to get the school’s AED (automated external defibrillator). It was fortunate that he had recently undergone training to be re-certified, and he knew exactly how to use the device.

Broderick explained, “Once you hook it up, it reads what’s going on and tells you what to do. The machine said out loud, ‘Continue CPR!’, then when it’s ready to shock the patient it says ‘Clear the body!’ or something like that. It was happening so fast, it’s hard to remember. Then it counted, ‘1-2-3,’ and shocked him. It said, ‘Resume CPR!’ and we continued. I don’t know how long it was. Maybe seven or eight minutes. Then fire, medical and police got there and they told us, ‘Continue — you’re doing a good job!’ They got their stuff set up and took over. They worked on him for another 20 minutes.”

The school office summoned Pocza’s parents, Sierra and Drew Pocza, as soon as the crisis took place. According to a family spokesperson, Pocza’s uncle, Jesse Winkler, it was also a stroke of luck that Drew was home from work that day. Pocza had briefly thought about staying home again, but Drew woke him up and made sure he got ready for school on time.

Winkler noted, “School was the best place for him to be when this happened — people knew what to do. The success story is how the school handled it.”

Pocza was taken to Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland and then flown to Children’s Hospital in Seattle, where doctors stabilized him and cooled him down to preserve his organs, especially his brain, said Winkler.

Broderick said that Pocza actually flatlined again on the helicopter and was revived several times. Miraculously, he seemed to have gotten enough oxygen, even when his heart was stopped. Otherwise, he would have suffered brain damage.

Winkler was asked if Pocza had a history of heart trouble or other serious illness. Winkler said about four years ago, there had been a question of a valve issue in the boy’s heart, but doctors didn’t think there was any correlation to this sudden event.

“So far, it seems random,” he said.

Pocza was moved out of the Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Hospital on the night of Nov. 10 and was slowly returning to his normal self, albeit with some short-term memory loss.

Winkler said the family is Christian and part of a large faith community.

“Word got out and hundreds of thousands have been supporting and praying for him,” he commented.

Barone has a background with medicine, but had never before seen someone defibrillated in a school setting.

And speaking as a principal, he said the most striking thing was the composure these teachers and coach displayed in a literal life-or-death situation: “Emotions didn’t interfere. These guys were solid as a rock. There was no delay, no question about what they had to do.”

When Pocza was taken to the hospital, “We were hopeful but pessimistic,” Barone admitted. “He was unresponsive for the next 48 hours. We didn’t know how it would turn out. I was preparing for the worst.”

Broderick agreed, “Had things not turned out well, we always would have wondered, ‘Did we do enough? Did we do it fast enough? Did we do it right?’ We practice fire drills, but we don’t practice ‘kid down’ drills.”

He and his colleagues feel humbled that they indeed did things right when seconds counted.

Redmond Police community outreach facilitator Jim Bove praised all who played a part in saving Pocza’s life.

“Their response was nothing short of heroic,” said Bove. “They are the prime reason the young man is still alive and has another chance at life. Everyone did what they were supposed to do — teachers, administrators, medics, fire, police. It was a team effort and of course, was topped off by the student’s courage.”

PhysioControl — the Redmond-based company which built the AED used during this emergency — states that about 335,000 Americans experience sudden cardiac arrest each year. This includes men, women and children; nearly 1,000 people per day. Only about five percent survive, usually because defibrillators arrive on the scene too late, if at all.

The Mercer Island School district has had defibrillators at each school since 2005-06. Private money paid for some of those devices. Other public facilities on the Island also have AEDs, such as the JCC.

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