‘Stay on the line’: 911 dispatcher helps teacher save student’s life

Only several B.C. districts have the potentially life-saving devices in all their schools

BC Ambulance Service dispatcher Colin Terry and elementary school teacher Wendy Swain listen back to the 911 call that changed both their lives and saved a student. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

“Hello, B.C. Ambulance here.”

Dispatcher Colin Terry remembers the warm sunny day last year when he took the call.

“Even before I knew what was going on, I knew in her voice this was going to be something bad.”

Elementary school teacher Wendy Swain had taken her students out for a recess break. The children were playing, when one suddenly fell to the ground.

“I hustled over and what I saw was my student looking very dead,” said Swain.

The student, whose identity and school are not being revealed for privacy reasons, had gone into sudden cardiac arrest.

“You’re cutting in and out, but I already have help started,” Terry said to Swain during the 10-minute 911 call.

Advocating for defibrillators

The stricken child would survive, thanks to Swain and Terry’s efforts.

Despite the positive outcome, Swain believes she could have helped the student earlier had the school had an automated external defibrillator (AED).

Elementary school teacher Wendy Swain said when she saw her student lying on the ground, she thought the student was dead. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Defibrillators are portable electronic devices that automatically diagnose life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias and send electric shocks through the chest wall of a person whose heart has stopped beating.

“If they had the defibrillator in the three to four minutes I sent for it, [the child] would’ve been revived in half the time,” said Swain.

Health officials say every second counts after a cardiac arrest.

Since the incident, Swain has tried to persuade the Vancouver School Board to get automated external defibrillators at all its schools.

Reliving the call

Swain and Terry met for the first time last week since the student collapsed, and listened to the call together at the B.C. Ambulance dispatch centre.

“Because the [cellphone] connection was so poor, I told Wendy, that if I ask her a question, I wanted her to say every answer twice. So, I would have twice the chance of understanding what was happening,” said Terry.

The phone connection improved and Terry was able to calmly talk Swain through the steps of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) until paramedics arrived on scene.

‘I will tell you exactly what to do next’

He told her to send someone to find a defibrillator. What followed were seemingly endless moments of Wendy administering chest compressions on the student — roughly 600 times until help arrived.

They counted together.

“Start counting out loud now. 1, 2, 3, 4. Push, push, push, push.”

Dispatcher Colin Terry has been answering emergency calls for five years and was a paramedic before that. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

A defibrillator never arrived. Luckily, paramedics were close by. Doctors don’t know why the child went into cardiac arrest, but has made a full recovery.

Swain said the incident underscores the need for schools to have these devices. Right now, several B.C. school districts have defibrillators in all their schools, including West Vancouver, Coquitlam, Fraser-Cascade and Sunshine Coast. New Westminster is in the process of installing AEDs at all its schools.

But schools within the Vancouver School Board don’t have AED’s for public use unless a child has a medical condition and a physician asks to make one available.

Not legislated or recommended

In B.C., there is also no legislation requiring schools to have AEDs. And the office of the provincial health officer — B.C.’s senior public health official — doesn’t recommend it.

In a statement, the office said AEDs are rarely needed in a school setting. As well, they require maintenance by trained personnel “so the overall benefit is not demonstrated in a school setting.”

Instead, the office said it supports putting defibrillators in settings where sudden cardiac arrest is more likely, such as recreation centres.

Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi, head of cardiac surgery at B.C. Children’s Hospital, disagrees with the provincial health officer’s argument that the devices aren’t needed in schools. In fact, Ghandi thinks all schools should carry them.

“It makes no sense,” he said. “All you have to do is see one of these children survive from an AED. Every place should have them,” he said.

Gandhi said there is evidence showing AEDs are among the most important tools in saving a person in sudden cardiac arrest, adding they’re designed for those with no training.

Gandhi said without the use an AED someone suffering from sudden cardiac arrest could die or if they do survive can suffer brain damage.

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