It didn’t take long for Henry Piedra to realize something was wrong. Part of a cheese-filled breadstick had become lodged in his throat. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t breathe. His friends, sitting with him at the lunch table at Middlesex Middle School, didn’t know what to do.
Thinking quickly, Henry scanned the room for someone to help. He spotted his math teacher, Trish Valentine, and wove his way toward her. Valentine was on cafeteria duty when Henry walked up behind her. Unable to talk, Henry made a hand gesture to indicate he was choking.
“I turned around and he was bright red,” Valentine recalled. “I looked at him, like, ‘You OK?’ He pointed to this throat. He wasn’t coughing or trying to get it up on his own. He couldn’t get air.”
Having been a former softball coach, Valentine knew first aid, and she knew the Heimlich maneuver. She stood behind Henry, locked her hands just below his sternum, and pulled up and in. No success. She tried again. Nothing. More attempts. Still nothing.
“I felt like I was giving him really good thrusts,” Valentine said. “I was thinking, if he passes out — obviously the nurses were on their way, the nurses had been called… I was getting a little nervous.”
She strengthened her attempts.
“I felt like I just kept doing it and nothing,” she said. Henry’s face was turning purple.
Finally, after roughly 10 tries, the food shot out. Henry inhaled deep.
“I was shaking a lot,” Henry said. “It felt nice to breathe.”
Herself shaken, Valentine, who has been at Middlesex since 1996, was “exhausted.”
“I thought, ‘Holy cow, thank God,’ ” she said.
Instead of taking the rest of the day off, Valentine pushed through her last class.
“I went about my day,” she said, admitting that the incident stayed with her, keeping her in “a kind of fog.”
“It’s a blur,” she said. “I think you just — your instincts take over. I play it back in my mind, and it’s a blur.”
Henry, who is in seventh grade, said it felt like that chunk of food was stuck in his throat “for a long time.” From now on, he said he plans on chewing carefully and abstaining from talking. As much as possible.
Valentine noted that lunch is a time when students socialize, so it’s difficult to encourage them to not combine talking and chewing simultaneously. She advised students to take small bites and chew carefully.
Debi Boccanfuso, Middlesex principal, told The Times that Valentine “did a great job at keeping confident in the moment.”
“She should be commended,” Boccanfuso wrote in an email. “Part of the reason we have teachers in the cafeteria is to be there should anyone student need anything and for the teachers to make sure everyone is doing all right. The student approached her, in distress, and she did the right thing. Very proud of her!”
Choking and suffocation is the third leading cause of home and community death in the United States, according to the National Safety Council. Children under 3 and the elderly are most at risk of choking, with food being the primary cause in most adult cases. People are advised to call 911 immediately if someone appears to be choking.
Henry’s mother, Alison, said her son was lucky to have someone like Valentine around to help him.
“She saved his life and is a true heroine,” Alison stated in an email to The Darien Times. “Middlesex… has an excellent reputation for its education. But it also has teachers like Trish Valentine that go beyond the call of duty and think and act quickly to ensure the safety of all the children.
“Our experience could have been totally different if it weren’t for Trish Valentine,” Alison continued.
Henry and his mom brought Valentine flowers to thank her for saving Henry. It was Valentine’s first time ever using the maneuver she learned so long ago. Hopefully it will be her last, she said.
For Henry, he doubts he’ll find cheese-filled breadsticks on his plate ever again.
Henry “did the right thing,” Valentine said. “He realized he was in trouble and came running up, which was great for him to recognize that.”