WHEATON, Mo. — It was a normal day for Sally Sharp, a second-grade teacher at Wheaton Elementary School. But while she was eating lunch with a group of teachers, something happened that would change her life in ways she never could have imagined.
“I got ready to take a bite of meatloaf, and I remember looking up above my glasses and the room started spinning out of control,” Sharp said.
Melissa Creed, Sharp’s friend and fellow second-grade teacher, remembers what happened next on Jan. 19, 2011.
“She mumbled something, and I looked up,” Creed said. “She was as white as a ghost and fell backwards out of her chair.”
Sharp said she has no memory of what happened next.
“I was trying to tell them I was dizzy,” she said. “I don’t remember anything after that until what I call the twilight moments.”
Creed said she initially thought that Sharp, who is diabetic, was suffering from low blood sugar, but she quickly realized that something more serious was happening. She said other teachers ran to get help and returned with the school’s two nurses. One immediately began performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Sharp, while the other ran to retrieve one of the school’s automatic electronic defibrillators.
Creed said she felt powerless to help her friend.
“I’ve had getting CPR training on my to-do list for years, but I had not done it. So, I felt completely helpless,” she said. “Thank God a nurse came in and started the CPR, but if it had been left in my hands, the outcome would have been very different.”
While students and teachers stood praying in the hallway, school nurse Karen Mitchell arrived with an electronic defibrillator and attached it to Sharp.
“I knew we had an AED, but I would have never gotten it because I didn’t know I was capable of using it,” Creed said. “I was so amazed. The nurse popped it open, and it started talking to us.”
After analyzing Sharp’s heart rhythms, the AED sent an electric pulse through her body, effectively jump-starting her heart.
“They put the AED on her, and it was amazing,” Creed said. “The moment it shocked her, she took a deep breath of air. It was just unbelievable.”
Sharp was conscious and responsive when paramedics arrived. She was taken to Mercy Hospital in Cassville and then to Springfield, where doctors inserted an internal defibrillator into her chest.
“It’s like my little ER,” Sharp said.
Sharp said the device, which lies just under her skin, can regulate her heartbeat and administer an electric shock to restart her heart in the event it stops again.
While recovering at home, Sharp decided to dedicate herself to educating the public on the importance of teaching CPR as well as the need for schools to have electronic defibrillators easily accessible in case of cardiac emergencies.
“One of the biggest changes to my life is that I’ve become an advocate for CPR and AEDs,” she said. “Before this, I didn’t know what an AED was. I didn’t even realize it was over there, let alone what it did. Now, I’m a lot more conscious of it.”
The American Heart Association says the lives of cardiac arrest victims are in the hands of bystanders 80 percent of the time. Immediate CPR more than doubles a victim’s chance of survival, but the association says that up to 70 percent of Americans feel helpless to act because of a lack of CPR training.
Sharp and Creed think that statistic has got to change. In the nearly 14 months since her life was saved, Sharp has become a vocal advocate for CPR education.
In January, she and Creed testified before the Health Care Policy Committee of the Missouri House of Representatives in favor of House Bill 1337. It would require that CPR be taught as a requirement for graduation from any Missouri high school.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, said in a phone interview Thursday that the bill was passed out of committee by consent and likely will reach the House floor after legislators return from their spring break.
Stream said a similar bill failed to make it out of the Senate last year after it was lumped in with a larger education bill that failed to pass. He said he is “cautiously optimistic” that it will pass both houses this year.
Stream, who was trained in CPR during his time in the Navy, said it is an important lifesaving skill that all students should know.
Said Creed: “It may not save their life, but just to know that you did everything you could to save them, because if Sally hadn’t made it, I would always live with that.”
Sharp said she has made several lifestyle changes. She exercises in the morning with her husband and walks after school with a group of teachers. She has lost 50 pounds in the past five months. She feels healthier now than she did before the episode with her heart.
Sharp and Creed have become certified in CPR. They also teach their pupils in the second grade not to be intimidated by defibrillators.
“I tell them to just grab it and open it, and if the adults are afraid, you can do it,” Creed said.
Sharp said she and Creed intend to return to Jefferson City if the bill comes before the Senate.
“I can’t just sit here and do nothing and hope this bill goes through,” Sharp said. “I got a second chance at life. My kids are all grown, but my grandchildren are getting ready to start school, and when they get to high school, I want it to be a norm that it’s either taught in their PE class or health class.”