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Police Officer P.D. Wyatt this month received an award of meritorious duty.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Officer P.D. Wyatt, the school resource officer at James Madison Middle School, earned an award of meritorious duty for using the Heimlich maneuver to save a student from choking while he was on duty in the school cafeteria in May.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
There aren’t many things that can make a middle school cafeteria go quiet during lunch.
On May 15, about two weeks before the end of his first year as James Madison Middle School’s resource officer, Roanoke police officer P.D. Wyatt was chatting with students at the table nearest the back wall.
That’s when the first disquieting bit of silence began. Two rows of tables up, an ebullient sixth-grader named Saffire Pullins had stopped talking and started frantically grabbing at the students around her.
“She was definitely giving the universal sign that she was choking, and honestly if Saffire’s not talking, something’s wrong,” Wyatt said. “She’s a social butterfly.”
The girl’s aunt and guardian, Odessa Mapson, said Saffire, now 12, had just gotten braces the previous day. It was Chinese food day at James Madison and Saffire had bitten into a piece of orange chicken.
Mapson said the chunk of meat got stuck on the back of Saffire’s new orthodontic equipment and then lodged in her throat.
Within seconds she leapt from her seat, Wyatt said, and started running back and forth. Near the entrance to the cafeteria, Wyatt and a teacher’s aide jumped up to help. Mapson, who didn’t want Saffire to have to talk about the incident, said this week that she is thankful her niece’s wild motions were recognized for what they were, instead of being mistaken for a young girl having fun.
“He could have thought, ‘Oh, Saffire’s playing again,’ ” Mapson said. “But he realized what was going on and went straight to her aid.”
The aide began performing the Heimlich maneuver but didn’t make any progress. Color began to drain from the girl’s face. The sound was sucked from the room.
“All I remember is hearing somebody in the cafeteria praying,” Wyatt said. “I remember hearing that out loud — don’t know who it was.”
Wyatt, who spent 16 years on the force before becoming a school resource officer, has dealt with the traumas that can come with police work, but didn’t want to face another one in the middle of the school. He stepped in and began performing the Heimlich maneuver.
His training kicked in. He positioned his hands under Saffire’s sternum, in the stomach area, and began to pump upward into her ribs. The first thrust did nothing. A second, more forceful thrust. Still nothing.
“I remember thinking to myself, Don’t let this child die in my arms,” he said. “That’s all I could think about.”
He had thought a lot, during his first year in a school, about how he might be called upon.
“You know, I plan for safety and strategies and different things like that for the students every day,” Wyatt said. “I’m always going over things in my head — what am I going to do in different scenarios — but that one threw me a curveball.”
The goal of school resource officers, aside from ensuring the safety of the students, is to build positive associations with the police in the minds of local youth.
“I try to get to know them in the hallway, and interact with them on their level,” Wyatt said. “On the streets, some of the kids have a different view, unfortunately, of the police. And sometimes we’re there on the worst day of their life or of their family’s life.”
Wyatt said kids’ perceptions of the police can change completely when officers are put in approachable situations, something he experienced as a mounted officer downtown.
“On the horse, it’s like you were a hero to them,” he said. “They’d come up and talk to you and want to pet the horse.”
Wyatt’s third thrust, even more urgent than the first two, dislodged the food. Air returned, to Saffire and to the room. Sound returned, as the kids cheered in relief over the averted tragedy.
“The whole thing probably took 30 to 45 seconds,” Wyatt said. “It probably seemed like two minutes to her of not breathing because of her panic and adrenaline. I can relate to her on that.”
In the aftermath, Wyatt said, both he and Saffire were shaken up. She was eventually checked by the nurse and cleared to return to class. The officer thought about his own daughter, a fourth-grader and his only child.
“Once she got to the nurse and was OK, and resumed her activities, honestly I just wanted to go home and hug my daughter,” he said.
Roanoke police recognized Wyatt’s actions on Aug. 5 with an award of meritorious duty, and Saffire thanked him with a letter. Wyatt said the letter was heartfelt, apologizing that he had to perform the Heimlich but thanking him for saving her.
“I keep the original on my dresser with a picture of my daughter next to it,” Wyatt said.
The experience has created a bond, he said, and he plans to follow Saffire — now a seventh-grader at James Madison — to make sure she stays on the right track.
“He was right on time,” Mapson, her aunt, said. “She’s here because of him.”
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