Like all Boy Scouts, Christopher Fox knows the organization’s motto by heart: “Be Prepared.”
And because his teachers were prepared one morning during a field day celebration, Christopher is still alive.
The lanky 15-year-old athlete — who ran track and had recently taken up volleyball — had just finished sprinting the first leg of a relay race and had handed off his baton. As a crowd watched during the event in June, Christopher suddenly fell face down into the grass, lifeless. No movement. No pulse.
The staff at Cooper Middle School in McLean, Va. — trained in CPR and in using a defibrillator at the school — rushed in and saved Christopher’s life. Emergency room physicians later hailed the quick-thinking staff as heroes.
On Thursday night, the Fairfax County school board commended the eight teachers who helped revive Fox, “averting what would have been an unspeakable tragedy.”
Introducing an honorary resolution, school board member Janie Strauss said that “while our teachers and staff work very hard to impart knowledge every day, occasionally they actually save the life of a child.”
The events began on June 18, when Christopher, then a Cooper 8th grader, joined hundreds of students for the Olympic-style games on the second-to-last day of school. Frank Stevens, Cooper’s assistant principal, had been handing out water to parent volunteers when he heard a student scream his name.
“Hearing that tone, I knew something was wrong,” said Stevens, 59.
The administrator ran toward the track and found Christopher on the ground, unconscious, not breathing and without a heartbeat.
“I rolled him over and it was like ‘Oh my gosh. I’m looking death right in the eyes,'” Stevens said. “It scared the heck out of me.”
Christopher’s face turned purple and Stevens knew that the teenager was in grave danger. Earlier in his career, Stevens had worked for the National Park Service maintaining public golf courses and had received ample training on the importance of CPR in a life-or-death situation.
Christopher’s younger brother, Peter, then a 7th grader, ran to be by his brother’s side as he lay on the ground.
“We had no idea what was going to happen and how it was going to turn out,” said Peter, 13.
Cooper principal Arlene Randall said that teachers call 911 for help occasionally at the school, usually for an asthma attack or after a student is administered with epinephrine to treat an allergic reaction.
“So after a while you get immune to it,” Randall said. “But I got on the phone and knew immediately something was wrong.”
Stevens was joined in the rescue effort by seven other Cooper staff members who helped keep the student alive. Heather Dorman, a technology specialist, worked the radios to alert the school to call 911. Dan Farney, a history teacher who had once been an EMT, hooked up the defibrillator. Mike Hunter, a Fairfax County police officer assigned to Cooper, served as a liaison with emergency medical staff. Donna McAllister Long, the school nurse, assisted with CPR. DiAnn Park, a classroom teacher, helped keep students calm. Leslie Psaltis — a Cooper librarian and registered nurse who performs shifts in the cardiology department at INOVA Fairfax Hospital during the summers — also helped hook up the defibrillator. Scott Worthington, the physical education teacher, held the student’s head as the others did chest compressions.
“Everyone worked naturally as a team,” Stevens said. “All of the sudden we reacted. If you believe in a higher being, you’re like ‘God, please help me do this right.'”
Initially Stevens did chest compressions to pump Christopher’s heart. He noted that in his CPR training the experts had suggested they keep their compressions in rhythm to the BeeGees’ disco song “Staying Alive.”
“We were humming it to ourselves,” Stevens said. “There was this humming undertone as we just kept pumping away.”
When Christopher did not respond to the teachers yelling his name, Stevens called for someone to fetch one of Cooper’s four automatic external defibrillators (AEDs). Once they had the device in hand, the teachers quickly hooked the leads onto the teen’s bare chest. The machine automatically read that Christopher had experienced cardiac arrest and instructed the next step simply: “Fire.”
“Everyone’s like ‘Oh my gosh, here we go.'” Stevens said.
Christopher’s body received the electrical shock and Stevens noticed the boy began taking shallow breaths, a good sign. But minutes had passed by. While the teachers continued to wait until the ambulance arrived, Stevens kept performing CPR.
Pamela Fox was making chocolate brownies in her kitchen, with the cupboard doors all flung open, when she received a calm-but-urgent call from Cooper principal Randall telling her to come to the school immediately.
Fox at first considered tidying up the kitchen before deciding to head out the door in a hurry. She arrived just in time to see her son loaded into an ambulance.
“It was definitely the worst experience we’d ever been through,” Pamela Fox said. “The first 48 hours were so awful and dark.”
The emergency room physicians induced a coma and put Christopher’s body on ice to lower his core temperature and preserve brain function. Pamela Fox said she watched in terror as the medical team pulled open her firstborn’s eyelids to flash a light, looking for a pupil response.
“They couldn’t tell us if his brain was going to be normal,” Pamela Fox said, noting that even a cleaning lady at the hospital came up to her to say her family was praying for his recovery.
Then, in the middle of the night a couple of days after he was admitted, Christopher opened his eyes.
“I remember waking up in the hospital,” Christopher said. “It was scary. I didn’t know where I was.”
Pamela Fox said that she looked over and locked eyes with her son.
“He said ‘Hi mom,'” she said. “I started crying. Even the nurses, they said ‘Wow. That’s amazing.’ I felt that at that point that I knew he’d be okay. I knew he was still Christopher.”
Pamela Fox said that the doctors at INOVA Fairfax told her that when Christopher arrived at the hospital he had only a 5 percent chance of survival, and even less chance that he’d escape without brain damage. That he lived, she said, was due to the Cooper staff, particularly the assistant principal.
“Mr. Stevens didn’t give up on him,” Pamela Fox said.
Doctors have determined that an electrical conduction issue in Christopher’s heart caused it to stop that day in June. Surgeons implanted a pacemaker inside his chest and its square outline is now visible under his skin. His mother carries a portable defibrillator in a red case as a precaution in case his internal pacemaker fails.
Pamela Fox said that the day Christopher came home “he played his cello like he’d never been in the hospital.”
Christopher Fox said that while he can’t remember anything from the day of his collapse, he believes his brain is otherwise unaffected. Pamela Fox said that her son is thriving at Langley High School, where he is a freshman interested in astronomy and history. Christopher said that he is easing back into physical activity.
“I’m playing it safe,” he said. “I’m a little more careful.”
After what he calls “the event,” Christopher recently completed his Eagle Scout project, a prayer garden at his local church decorated with a stone angel.
He said he’s thanked all of the Cooper teachers who saved him and is otherwise trying to get his life “back to normal.”
But because of that day he can’t remember, Christopher said, he learned a lesson he’ll never forget.
“I’ve kind of realized since then that it’s really important to spend time with friends and family and not stress out about always getting A’s on everything and doing homework,” Christopher Fox said. “It’s about really loving everything about everyone.”