SYLVANIA, Ohio – Sometimes, the difference between living and dying can be measured in seconds.
Such was the case the morning of Nov. 9 at McCord Junior High School. Connie Root, a 6th grade science teacher, had just told the 23 students in her fifth-period class she wasn’t feeling well and would be taking the following day off to visit her doctor.
The students began working on an assignment. Connie returned to her desk. There, she began writing a reminder to her substitute. It was approaching noon. Connie got part of one word down and, suddenly, pitched forward, sprawling across her desk.
Connie had not slept well the previous night. She and her husband, Rich Root, spent much of Nov. 6, a Sunday, doing fall clean-up chores at their 10-acre property in rural Fulton County. Connie pulled weeds and assumed the sharp, deep pain she felt in her left armpit was the result of that effort. But she also felt heartburn, something she had never experienced before. She started taking ibuprofen to ease her discomfort.
Connie was still in bed as Rich was about to leave for work at the BP refinery in Oregon. She told him about her restless night and feeling ill. He suggested she call her physician, Dr. Nancy Stadler.
Connie considered staying home, but that was not her style. She loved her job and possessed a strong work ethic. In her 15 years at McCord, Connie had only missed a few days. So off to work she went, a fortuitous decision, as it turned out, since she would have been home alone.
At McCord, as Connie mingled with her colleagues before classes began, she let it be known she wasn’t feeling well. By chance, Mike Cook, the husband of teacher Merry Cook, was there. Mike, a Sylvania Township firefighter and paramedic, overheard Connie talk about the pain in her armpit. That concerned him. Arm pain can be a warning sign that a heart attack is imminent.
Mike studied Connie. Her breathing was fine. She wasn’t sweating. Her skin color was good.
“She looked the same as she did every day,” he recalled.
Still, Mike suggested to Connie that she contact her family doctor, thinking she might be sent to the ER, he said. Tedra White, a ProMedica spokesman, said records show that Connie told Dr. Stadler's office she had shoulder pain after exercising. Based on that conversation, the office scheduled an appointment for the following morning, White said.
Tomorrow, as it turned out, was too late.
Students, teachers, paramedics act
Just prior to Connie collapsing, her students had heard her breathing loudly and heavily, so they quickly recognized something was terribly wrong.
Jaret Hoschak and Mark Curtis, both 11, sprinted out the door, heading for the cafeteria. Andy Riggs, 12, hustled next door to Linda Cromley’s classroom.
Using the wall-mounted phone, Sarah Sabol, 11, dialed what she thought was the office but it turned out to be – fortunately - Rebecca Griffey’s nearby classroom.
In the cafeteria, Jaret and Mark quickly found the school’s principal, Keith Limes and told him they thought Mrs. Root had suffered a seizure. Kathleen Theiss, a close friend of Connie’s who had been involved in the morning discussion about her illness, was standing nearby. She and Limes headed for Connie’s classroom. Along the way, Limes called 911.
When they arrived they found Griffey directing the students out of the classroom toward her room. Linda Cromley was there, as was Merry Cook, who had been in Griffey’s classroom when Sarah called. Cook was on her mobile phone with the 911 dispatcher, whom she called at 11:56 a.m. They were soon joined by another teacher, Tim Nottke.
Nottke and Theiss, both of whom were certified in CPR, examined Connie, who was still in her chair with her head on the desk. Cook was trying to find a pulse, to no avail. Nottke and Theiss moved Connie to the floor behind her desk.
At that point, she began turning blue. When informed of this, the dispatcher told the teachers to begin CPR. Using both hands, Theiss began quick, rhythmic compressions of Connie’s chest. Her color began to improve, but Nottke still could not find a pulse.
He told Theiss: “I hope the paramedics hurry up and get here.”
By good fortune, Mike Cook’s station, No. 2, was only two-tenths of a mile away. Paramedics arrived within a few minutes. They quickly inserted an intubation tube into Connie’s mouth to open her breathing airway.
Right behind them, arriving at 12:03 p.m., were Lucas County EMS paramedics. They attached an automated CPR harness to Connie’s chest and began administering shock drug treatments into her bone marrow through a catheter inserted into her tibia.
It took a while, but the paramedics were successful.
“After the third shock she came back and started breathing on her own,” said Brent Parquette, EMS training and quality assurance manager.
Heart surgery and brain testing
At Toledo Hospital, tests determined that Connie had suffered a heart attack. Dr. James Smith, of the on-call CardioCare Consultants group, happened to be at the hospital and was summoned to surgery.
While changing into his scrubs and reading the electrocardiogram results, Dr. Smith was stunned to see Connie’s name on the report. Previously, he and his family had been neighbors with Connie and Rich for seven years. They were close friends.
“I got sick to my stomach,” he said. “Emotionally, it caught me off guard. But I switched modes and did what I was trained to do.”
Dr. Smith found that Connie’s left anterior descending artery, known as the widow maker, was 100 percent blocked, underscoring the seriousness of her heart attack. Over the course of an hour, Dr. Smith guided thin wires through the blocked artery to open some space. He then inserted a balloon catheter to further enlarge the opening, after which he added a stent to keep the artery open.
The surgery was a success but Connie was not clear of danger. The potential of brain damage lingered.
“We didn’t know how long she had been out before CPR started,” Dr. Smith said.
Connie was transferred to the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, where she spent five days. Doctors there immediately initiated a therapeutic hypothermia treatment known as ICE protocol, which, after running a cold saline solution through an IV, dropped her body temperature to 91.4 degrees.
By lowering Connie’s core body temperature and placing her in an induced coma, the chances of her brain activity remaining normal were enhanced, according to Dr. Smith. But not guaranteed.
After 24 hours, the hypothermia treatment stopped. Connie woke up. Her body temperature returned to normal. Testing ensued. The news was terrific: She appeared to be fine. Perhaps the proof came during her last night in ICU, when in the middle of the night Connie managed to dislodge a ventilator. She wanted out. A few days later, on Nov. 16, Connie went home.
Dr. Smith was thrilled – and in awe of what happened.
“Anybody who experienced what she has and is able to walk out of the hospital with full neurological function and no significant after effect is very lucky,” he said.
From a medical perspective, measuring Connie’s good fortune is simple. When someone suffers a heart attack and stops breathing, every minute that passes without treatment reduces the chance for survival by 10 percent, according to Brent Parquette, the county’s paramedics trainer.
As recently as 2005, heart attack victims like Connie only had a 12 to 15 percent survival rate in Lucas County. That number is around 45 percent today.
“I think it’s a result of a more aggressive approach to treatment in the field and advances in the equipment and drugs we carry,” said Parquette.
During her stay at Toledo Hospital, Connie’s family and friends kept replaying the events that led to her miraculous survival.
Said Rich, her husband, “I’m what if-ing it to death. It’s pretty incredible.” What if Connie had stayed home? What if she had the attack while driving to work? What if she had driven to Dr. Stadler’s office or to the ER?
Of course, the largest what if is this: What if the students and teachers hadn’t reacted as they did?
“At McCord we have four cornerstones,” said Keith Limes, the principal. “Two of them are respect and integrity. The kids definitely reacted with those two things [in mind]. They were being really good people who cared and who still thought clearly enough to do the right thing.”
Ironically, this was the second classroom incident involving some of the same students. Earlier this school year, a student in Brian Mitchell’s class suffered a seizure. While he was attending to the student, Mitchell asked Sarah Sabol to call the office, as she did during Connie’s attack.
Jaret Hoschak, however, said he sat still and did nothing, an action that bothered him for weeks.
“I felt bad,” said Jaret, who envisions working as a U.S. Wildlife and Fish officer one day. “I could have done something to help. So when Mrs. Root collapsed, I knew I had to do something.”
Kathleen Theiss, who under extreme pressure performed critical CPR on Connie when it mattered most, deflected all praise to the students and Limes.
“I was impressed with Keith,” she said. “He had an aura of being calm. He let the teachers do what they were doing. He kept the other students in lockdown so they wouldn’t see Connie carried out to the ambulance. And, then, after the fact, he tried to control any rumors leaking out. That was important.”
For her part, Connie – known at McCord as a strict but fair teacher who gets the maximum effort and results out of her students – has no memory of Nov. 9. In fact, her mind is blank over a 10-day period before and after her heart attack.
Presently, Connie’s at home recuperating. Six pill bottles sit on her kitchen counter, an odd site for someone who has been healthy all her life. She has frequent headaches, tires easily and is sleeping poorly. Normally a boisterous woman whose voice could be heard the length of a football field, she’s down a decibel or two at the moment.
"I’m still afraid it might happen again,” she said.
She’s scheduled to see Dr. Smith on Dec. 7 and hopes she’ll get the OK to drive so she can return to work.
Meanwhile, she’s trying to align her emotions.
“It’s hard for me to understand the enormity of what happened because I don’t remember anything,” she said. “I feel bad because I know how scared I made everyone. After listening to everyone explain what happened, I realize how lucky I am. It wasn’t my time.”
Connie is crystal clear on her thoughts about her students.
“It’s amazing, but I’m not surprised,” she said. “They’re such good kids. They’re not the sort of kids that would sit back and do nothing.”
Ditto Kathleen Theiss.
“If there’s something that needs to be done, she just does it.”
As for the future, Connie said she’ll come up with a project of some sort to show her appreciation and help others in a similar situation.
“I have to do something,” she said. “I’m just not sure what.”
Reported by George J. Tanber firstname.lastname@example.org