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Governor Nathan Deal signs into legislation Georgia Senate Bill 212 last Thursday at Dade County High School. Rising Fawn resident and retired public health nurse Verenice Hawkins who has fought to have CPR taught in schools for several years is the driving force behind the legislation. Pictured with Governor Deal at the signing are, from left, Dennis Kelley, Puckett EMS; Hawkins, Ann Ervin, Puckett EMS; Chastity Mitchell, Regional Vice President, Advocacy with American Heart Association; State Representative John Deffenbaugh; Alex Case, Dade County EMA Director; Duane Wilson, Jerry Henegar, State Senator Jeff Mullis and Sheriff Ray Cross.
 

By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter

 

A day in the life of a crusader can be pretty grim. You know the drill: trying to climb glass mountains only to slide down, tilting at windmills that snap your lance, cutting the head off the hydra and watching in disgust as two more sprout to take its place. 

But one day every once in a great while, instead of the dragon getting you, you get the dragon, and does the crowd go wild. 

For retired public health nurse Verenice Hawkins, last Thursday was that day. Youngsters cheered from the bleachers of Dade County High School, dignitaries gave speeches and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal flew in from Atlanta to sign into law the legislation that represented two decades of Ms. Hawkins’ advocacy. 

The 80-year-old Rising Fawn resident had agitated to have cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) taught in Dade schools throughout the tenure of several successive superintendents. Now, with Georgia Senate Bill 212, she finally got her way. Not only will Dade students learn the lifesaving skill, so will high school students statewide.  

“I just can’t shut up,” said Ms. Hawkins later of her long quest.

She did not herself address the crowd gathered in the high school gymnasium for the May 2 ceremony but left it to her daughter, retired DCHS teacher Linda Wilson, to speak in her place. 

Ms. Wilson described the matriarch’s place in their family as mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. “Now,” she concluded, “she can add ‘activist’ to her list of titles.”

Ms. Wilson recounted how her mother began encouraging CPR instruction in the schools as Dade’s longtime public health nurse, failed to interest school leadership in it then, but became even more adamant in retirement. 

Finally, a couple of years ago, listening as she does almost every day to local radio, Ms. Hawkins heard that Jeff Mullis, Dade’s Georgia state senator, would be visiting the county shortly, and she vowed to rope him into her cause.

It was Sen. Mullis who – after delays that made the feisty nurse bristle with impatience – did ultimately usher the CPR bill through the Georgia Senate.

Speaking in his own turn, Mullis, present at the occasion along with John Deffenbaugh, Dade’s newly-elected member of the Georgia House of Representatives, said that CPR had always been of special interest to him since he had been a fire chief “when I was much younger and much thinner.”

He said that if the resuscitation instruction saves just one life it would have accomplished a great feat. “History’s being made,” he said.

And he ceded the microphone to Gov. Deal, whom he described as “a friend of ours in Dade County.”

“Anything to get out of class, huh?” the governor quipped to the high school students before taking his place at a table to sign the bill publicly. 

“It is a somewhat momentous day,” said Gov. Deal. He said that the presence of a person trained in CPR doubles or triples the chance for survival for someone gripped by a sudden cardiac arrest. 

The governor noted: “Ms. Hawkins was the inspiration for this legislation,” and he also reminded the audience that Mullis and Deffenbaugh had sponsored the bill in the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives, respectively.

“I can’t think of a more perfect location for signing this piece of legislation than right here,” said Deal.

Also on hand for the speechifying and photo ops were Ted Rumley, head of Dade’s county government; Sheriff Ray Cross; Alex Case, the county’s 911 boss; and Dennis Kelley, the Puckett EMS paramedic who has been coordinating CPR instruction at the high school this 2012/13 school year.  

After the legislation had been signed, the high school chorus had sung “Georgia on My Mind,” and the governor had been whisked off Atlantaward, Ms. Hawkins, though besieged by regional press, found time for a few words with the Dade County Sentinel.

She said she’s not out of the crusading biz just yet:  Her next campaign will be for legislation requiring newborns to be tested for heart conditions with pulse oximetry.

Chastity Mitchell of the American Heart Association, who had come down for the ceremony from Nashville, explained that a pulse oximetry machine is the gadget medical professionals put on a patient’s finger to measure oxygen levels. Now it has been found that the machine may be used on newborns for early detection of a heart condition that can be fatal if left undiagnosed, she said: If certain oxygen levels are found in babies within 24 hours of birth, that’s an indication the baby should be taken for an electrocardiogram.

“It costs about $1 to $2, very inexpensive, and it’s saving babies left and right,” said Ms. Mitchell. 

Tennessee passed legislation requiring the test last year, and it went into effect just Jan. 1, said Ms. Mitchell. “I already know, at one hospital, Vanderbilt in Nashville, of two babies it’s saved since January,” she said.

So Verenice Hawkins, flushed with victory from her CPR success, will next ride into battle for pulse oximetry, she indicated.

Now, wait a minute, said the Sentinel: Wasn’t first aid instruction Ms. Hawkins’ announced next cause?

That, too, said Ms. Hawkins. “They definitely need first aid,” she said. “They’re all going to graduate and have families, and Dennis Kelley will teach it here.”

She said she was already writing to the state school superintendent on the first-aid front.

Ms. Hawkins said her fellow nursing school graduates (from the class of 1953) had never understood her community activism. That, she said, is because they don’t get what kind of place Dade is, where everybody knows everybody and where she can remember vaccinating the grandmothers of current residents when they were babies brought to the Health Department.

“These are my people,” she said.


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