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Life saving lessons from a saved life

Tim Croft
The Star

Billy Cohen is a strapping 20-year-old on a pre-med track at Washington University in St. Louis.

His dreams, since an early age growing up in North Carolina, have been to follow the footsteps of his father, a physician, and his mother, a nurse.

Might not have been.

If not for the quick actions of two people at his high school trained in CPR who stepped in five years ago to assist a stricken student and athlete.

Would not have been if not for the presence of an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) at the school; one of more than a dozen at the small private school.

A couple of people trained and willing to help, and equipped properly, saved a teenage life.

In many ways, Billy Cohen was fortunate; his small school of 140 had not only coaches and trainers trained in CPR but more than a dozen AEDs on campus.

The nearest public school his area has more than 800 students and a single AED.

Since that (what to call coming back from the brink of death) episode, which was followed by open heart surgery (Billy has had three and has a defibrillator permanently implanted in his ribs), Billy and his mother, Elizabeth, have become avid supporters of the American Heart Association.

In particular, the Association’s CPR kit which provides basics on this life-saving method which has evolved into a straightforward focus on chest compressions.

“There is no providing breaths or anything touching the face,” Elizabeth said. “Their blood is oxygenated, so it is just a matter of pumping it out to the body and brain.

“And it is safe to give chest compressions even during COVID.”

The pair has related their story at a couple of local high schools and has filmed YouTube videos, emphasizing the importance of CPR and AEDs.

“In high schools, it is the importance of students knowing CPR and knowing the location of an AED if there is one,” Elizabeth said. “In colleges, it is teaching kids to look around, know where an AED might be located.”

Billy emphasized the ease of operating an AED.

“All you have to do is turn it on and it will walk you through it,” Billy said. “There is really no excuse for not using it.”

In very short strokes, Billy, born with a heart murmur, collapsed as a high school sophomore while running around a soccer field surrounded by a running track.

Team photos were underway on the soccer pitch, there were plenty of witnesses.

Billy was gone, had stopped breathing, but a coach certified in CPR and later joined by a trainer bearing an AED and CPR training revived him, barely.

“It was terrifying,” Elizabeth said of the phone call alerting her to her son’s situation. “I am a nurse.

“I have seen death. I have see things nobody would want to see.”

Billy was unconscious for much of two days as doctors assessed his health and decided a course of action which included additional surgery.

He had some short-term memory loss and took much of the school year to catch up to his peers (he was not going to be left behind, Billy said), but is now studying biology on a pre-med track at one of the best schools in the country.

He could’ve looked at his health in one of two ways, Billy said, that he was damaged goods or, as mom said, “100 percent and will hopefully live a long and healthy life.

“It made me value my life and I definitely looked back at what I had done and realized everything can change in an instant,” Billy said.

Elizabeth added, “For your kid, you want him to go for it.”

Thanks to a little training and the proper equipment, this one is.