By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
It was with quiet satisfaction that, on Monday morning, Verenice Hawkins watched a class of ninth-graders pushing against the chests of dummies in the Dade County High gymnasium as they learned cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). For the retired public health nurse, 80, this moment represented the culmination of 20 years’ effort. In fact, Ms. Hawkins must have felt sometimes she was pushing dummies herself as she struggled in vain through the decades to get CPR taught at the high school.
“Twenty years ago, when I started trying to get this done while I was still with the Health Department, I just could not get the schools to cooperate,” said Ms. Hawkins. “This fellow from Rome that was in charge of all the ambulance services, 10 counties, he wanted to help me. He would teach the teachers how to teach it, and they would even get credit on their teacher certification.” She threw up her hands. “Well, I couldn’t get them to do it.”
Ms. Hawkins said the schools superintendent back then – she would not say which one – told her, “If we taught that and then they didn’t save a life, we could be sued.” Ms. Hawkins shrugged. “You see what I was facing?” she said.
Ms. Hawkins did not give up, even after she retired from her job at the Dade County Health Department. She wrote letters. She made calls. She at one point spent $45 to buy a CPR dummy and teaching kit, which she donated to the high school.
Sometimes she would back off the project for a while, but then something would always happen to make her dive back in. A couple of years ago, it was a television news story about a child who had drowned. “They didn’t say anything about anyone trying to do CPR,” she said. “I thought, could they have saved that child?”
Coincidentally, the next morning, she heard on the radio that state and federal government representatives were coming to Dade County to hear citizens’ concerns. “I thought, OK, by golly, I’ll go down there and talk to them,” she said.
So Ms. Hawkins waited her turn for the ear of Georgia State Senator Jeff Mullis, and when she had it she described her vision of a Dade County where no student would graduate from high school without knowing how to save a life with CPR.
The senator loved it, said Ms. Hawkins. “He said, ‘Why didn’t I think of that? I was an EMT,’” said Ms. Hawkins. He said he wouldn’t just help her get CPR into Dade schools, he’d take the idea statewide.
“Well,” she concluded, “it didn’t happen.”
Why not? When she asked, Mullis gave her a familiar answer, said Ms. Hawkins: “Too much money, is all I heard,” she said.
But this year, at long last, the current schools superintendent showed interest in CPR. “They had a kid quit breathing out at Davis, and it just happened that Sonya was there, the nurse, and did CPR,” said Ms. Hawkins. “So this made a believer of them.”
In any case, before minds could be changed, Ms. Hawkins picked up the phone and began work on tracking down David Lawson, the ambulance service supervisor who had volunteered to teach CPR at Dade years before. Like herself, he had since retired, but he fixed her up with a replacement: Brian Lee, operations supervisor of Puckett EMS, the ambulance provider that currently serves Dade.
Lee called Ms. Hawkins and said he’d love to help with the project. His name sounded familiar. It wasn’t until she’d talked to him more than once, though, that Ms. Hawkins ascertained an interesting plot twist: He was her long-lost nephew.
Well, sort of: Lee’s parents had been divorced, and Ms. Hawkins’ brother had been his step-grandfather. “When his grandfather died, we just lost touch with the family,” said Ms. Hawkins. “That was just a bonus, because I had worried about him.”
In any case, here’s the happy ending: Brian Lee arrived at the high school Monday morning with a team of other Puckett and Dade County paramedics and emergency services personnel, including his wife, Leann Lee; Dennis Kelley, who is coordinating the instruction; Jerry and Tiffany Henegar; and Charles Newman. They brought with them the familiar CPR dummies and when the Sentinel arrived, high schoolers knelt above them in pairs, learning how to make them breathe.
“The dummies are actually battery-operated so that when you’re pressing in the right place for the right amount of time, you get little green lights on the chest to let you know that you’re doing it correctly,” said Brian Lee. “If you’re not doing it correctly, then you get a red light.”
Dennis Kelley explained that the CPR classes would be taught several times a day for several days, and then the students would have the option of testing for certification. “They’re going to continue with these classes until the end of this week; then we’re going to offer another day where they’re going to have a chance to get a minimum test,” he said.
CPR certification is good for two years, said Lee.
But the red-hot priority for CPR certification, said Lee, is the teachers at the school. “Whatever we have to do, day, night, weekends, off-time, vacations – that’s something that we really want to make sure happens, that the teachers before the end of this school year have the certification in their pocket that lets us know that they know how to do CPR,” he said.
He said this includes not just health teachers but teachers of English, math, you name it. “It doesn’t matter what class that you’re in,” he said. “Anything can happen anywhere in any class at any time.”
For Verenice Hawkins, all this was a consummation devoutly to be wished. She recalled that the only time she’d had to do CPR herself – on a baby who had stopped breathing and turned blue while at the health department for a shot – she’d had no instruction besides reading about it. “CPR came since I’ve been in nursing school,” said Ms Hawkins, who finished her nursing instruction in 1953.
She said she is not concerned whether kids receive a certificate or not as long as they leave the classroom prepared to save a life. “If they can breathe me, I don’t care if they’re certified,” she said. “It’s the scariest thing in the world when you’ve got somebody who’s not breathing.”
And with perhaps a hint of pepper in her voice, Ms. Hawkins said she would enjoy contacting Sen. Mullis to tell him how the CPR program had begun without his help. “And it’s not going to cost anything, because Dennis is going to do it for free,” she added.