Calif. teen's CPR saves father, impresses responders

The 13-year-old rushed to start a CPR technique that he’d learned in school, after his father suffered a sudden heart-attack

By Randi Rossmann
The Press Democrat

FORESTVILLE, Calif. — With his father slumped unconscious and not breathing on the kitchen floor, 13-year-old Lewis Griffith of Forestville announced to his startled mother he knew what to do.

He put his hands together and began pushing down on his dad’s chest in a quick rhythm he kept up for about six minutes, helping save his father’s life.

Arriving Forestville firefighters that summer afternoon were waved in to the family’s rural home by Lewis Griffith’s panicked mom, Elizabeth Westerfield. Inside, they found the teen on his own, working away on his father, Steve Griffith.

The teen was doing what he’d learned last spring in a P.E. class at Forestville Academy.

The lesson, for the school’s 45 seventh-graders, was part of a countywide effort by a coalition of emergency responders and health agencies called Save Lives Sonoma. Volunteers are teaching hands-only CPR to anyone willing to learn and they are specifically targeting all of the county’s seventh-graders.

“I just kind of went for it,” Lewis said. “When we called 911, they told me or told someone to do it, and I volunteered.”

He said he knew to put one hand on top of the other and aim for the center of his dad’s chest. He began pushing down to the beat of the old disco favorite “Stayin’ Alive” and didn’t stop until Forestville firefighters arrived and took over.

“I saw someone doing CPR and thought ‘OK, cool.’ I didn’t realize it was a kid immediately,” said Forestville fire engineer Eric Gromala. “I relieved him … and looked him in the eyes and thought ‘Whoa, this is a young guy.’ ”

Forestville’s firefighters have praised the teen’s courage and his CPR style. “It looked awesome. There was good depth” to the compressions, Gromala said.

Later, with the 64-year-old Griffith safely hospitalized, a heart doctor spelled it out to the boy and his mother. “He looked at my son and said ‘You saved your dad’s life,’ ” Westerfield said.

Chest compression keeps oxygen-rich blood pumping through a body even though a heart has stopped, said Lauri McFadden, a full-time operations manager for AMR ambulance company who is chairman of Save Lives Sonoma. The body needs that oxygen to maintain brain activity and stay alive.

The odds of surviving a heart attack aren’t good. The vast majority of sudden-cardiac-arrest victims die before reaching the hospital. But immediate CPR can double or even triple a victim’s chance of survival, according to the American Heart Association.

Hands-only CPR, strictly chest compression, is an easier version than standard CPR, as it omits breathing into the person’s mouth.

The American Heart Association, Red Cross and other leading health organizations have in recent years begun recommending hands-only CPR after several studies found chest compressions alone were just as effective as chest compressions combined with breath.

Save Lives Sonoma has so far brought the program to almost 20 Sonoma County middle schools with several more signed up for this school year. The lesson includes a short, instructional DVD, local firefighters and ambulance paramedics offering life and death examples of trying to save people and a two-minute challenge by each student to do compressions on plastic chests.

The choice of that age group was strategic.

“The reason we picked seventh-graders is they’re smart enough to learn it and teach it to the rest of their family and friends and they’re not too cool for it yet,” said Petaluma Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Schach.

Schach, who coordinates Petaluma Fire Department’s efforts with Save Lives Sonoma, said about 2,000 people in the south county have been taught, including hundreds of middle-schoolers. Hundreds more area students are slated to get the training in the next several months.

“We’re already seeing results,” Schach said, noting five people have been saved by someone stepping up to do the chest compressions in the past two years. “There’s been a drastic increase in the amount of bystanders doing (hands-only) CPR.”

Forestville Academy middle school Principal Phyllis Parisi said Lewis Griffith’s experience took the CPR training from a “that’ll never happen” to a reality check for the teens. “All of the kids went ‘wow.’ It’s very powerful when you see that learning had meaning and purpose,” Parisi said. “I think this will be a permanent feature for us.”

While seventh-graders typically embrace the training, McFadden said she routinely detects reservations from the young teens who indicate they aren’t sure about doing the chest compressions on a stranger.

“I tell the kids, the hard reality is you are more likely to do this on someone you know. Most (emergencies) happen at home. So it’ll be your mom, dad, grandma, grandpa,” she said.

Which is how it played out at about 3 p.m. Aug. 30, at the Griffith-Westerfield household in the Forestville hills.

Steve Griffith had been working that hot afternoon on the roof. When he started to feel sick, he came inside and looked terrible, his wife said.

There was a call for medical advice. While preparing to go to a hospital, he collapsed.

Lewis Griffith, who’d been watching TV, heard his dad fall and went to see what happened, then called for his mother, telling her to dial 911.

His older sister, Ella, 16 and a junior at El Molino High School, wasn’t home. Westerfield said she was going to do CPR when the dispatcher said, “You’re going to need to do compression. But Lewis piped up ‘I know how to do that.’ ”

“He took charge. It was amazing,” said Westerfield, who watched in wonder as her son started CPR and mouthed the words of the song to help himself stay on the beat.

Perhaps typical of a teen boy, Lewis last spring hadn’t bothered to mention to his family about having gotten the training at school. “This kid of mine had the presence to do that,” she said. “It was true grit is all I can say.”

Steve Griffith had stopped breathing. Westerfield baldly says, “He was dead.”

His son kept his heart pumping for as long as six minutes, and then the firefighters and paramedics took over. Between CPR and shocking his heart, they finally got it restarted.

One month after his close brush with death, Steve Griffith says he feels incredibly lucky and overwhelmingly proud of his son. “Pride in his ability and composure and willingness to work on his dad, (who was) laying there without breathing.”

But he’s also grateful to his other helpers, the firefighters, medical workers, dispatchers and Forestville Academy for offering the program and Save Lives Sonoma for promoting it. He has pledged to volunteer with the program for future trainings.

“We’re the poster family” for the program, his wife said.

McFadden hopes more schools will take up the offer for the free training. The county’s public and private middle schools have been alerted that it’s available, she said. Not all have responded and some have said thanks, but no thanks.

Save Lives Sonoma also has raised money through donations and grants to provide all 200 or so schools in the county with an AED, or automated external defibrillator. The small, portable electrical devices are designed for use by citizens to render aid during cardiac attacks. McFadden said they’ve been ordered and distribution has started.

The group’s other major goal, completed successfully, was to raise about $40,000 toward a software program for police and fire dispatchers that gives the location of the nearest defibrillator.


©2014 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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