By ZENDA DOUGLASS , Chatham News + Record Correspondent
Starting a fresh week of school can challenge any student, but on one recent Monday, a 16-year-old Northwood High School student faced the biggest challenge of her life.
And by the time the day was over, Airryn Wharton had a lot to be thankful for — an important class, a special teacher and, most of all, her father’s life.
When Airryn went outside to warm up her car that chilly Feb. 7 morning, she noticed her father had returned from driving her younger sister to school. But when she came back outside to leave for school herself, his car was still there — in the same spot.
That was unusual, Airryn thought.
Normally, her dad would have already left for work. When Airryn investigated, she found him inside the car, his head against the window — unconscious.
Airryn immediately ran to get her mother and brother, who were inside, and then called 911. The car doors were locked, but the window was down and the family managed to open the door, pull Reginald Aaron Wharton Jr. from his vehicle and lay him down flat upon the driveway.
The sound her dad made sounded like snoring to Airryn. But she knew — thanks to a class she took at Northwood — that it wasn’t.
Airryn proceeded to perform CPR on her father and continued chest compressions for about six minutes until help arrived. That sustained him until a police officer and Emergency Medical Technicians arrived; an ambulance then whisked her dad to UNC Hospitals, where he remained until late afternoon before being released.
The scare involved a previously undiagnosed health condition.
“In the moment, I definitely didn’t think of how big of a deal this is,” Airryn said. “I’m very glad now that CPR is something I could do to save his life. I just want to make sure that people know that CPR and safety training are so important — and can save a life.”
On the way to the hospital, Airryn sent a text message to Sherri Stubbs, one of her teachers at Northwood — the very teacher who taught Airryn the value and skill of CPR during her sophomore year.
“I know Airryn from my Health Science class and as a cheerleader,” said Stubbs, who also serves as the school’s cheerleading coach. “Airryn is a very even-keeled person, quiet and calm. The paramedics told Airryn’s mom that without her daughter’s efforts, there might have been a very different outcome. I call her the humble hero.”
Stubbs organized a formal moment of recognition for Airryn as a “humble hero” at a Northwood basketball game the following night.
Stubbs teaches Health Science I, a course in Northwood’s Health Science Pathways within its Career and Technical Education Program. In Health Science I, students learn about bodily systems, including skeletal, muscular, lymphatic and others; the circulatory and respiratory systems are covered in Health Science II. First aid and safety, as well as basic (or Heart-Saver) CPR, are covered in Health Science I.
Students can be certified in first aid after studying CPR, use of EpiPens, snake/spider bites, insect stings, drowning, anaphylactic shock, tourniquets and other stop-the-bleed techniques. Stubbs also teaches bio-technology which focuses more on technology, research and forensics.
Students who study through Health Science I and II and on to Nursing Fundamentals can obtain CNA certification. These courses provide students opportunities to see if there is serious interest in a health care or bio-medical field. Northwood teachers enhance learning by bringing in guest speakers from among medical professionals.
After working in radiology for 23 years, Stubbs became a health physicist for the State of North Carolina.
“I then decided that I wanted to teach and bring real-life perspective to the classroom,” Stubbs said.
One of the bulletin boards in her classroom is decorated to read, “The chapter you are learning today is the chapter that is going to save someone’s life tomorrow, so pay attention.”
“It’s really good to see students take lessons from the classroom and utilize them in day-to-day life,” said Vernon Cameron, Northwood’s Athletic Director. Some of his sports medicine classes also have correlation with health science classes.
“This is an example of teachers having a really big impact,” Cameron said, referring to Airryn’s life-saving actions.
CPR instruction is fairly easy to access within Chatham County and surrounding communities. The American Heart Association offers classes as does American Red Cross. Several other organizations and private businesses offer CPR and related classes in the area, and those interested may also choose to pursue their CPR instruction online. Central Carolina Community College offers numerous health care classes, all of which include CPR training. Lay persons will learn a hands-only “Heart-Saver” method while those pursuing career options as health care providers will learn Basic Life Support methods. More than compressions only, BLS CPR involves breathing into a patient’s mouth or using rescue breather equipment and/or using different techniques for infants and children.
“Either way, you’re trying to massage the heart and get it back into its proper rhythm,” Stubbs said. “Every patient is different. With cardiac arrest or heart attack, there are many different scenarios and survival rates with CPR vary significantly.”
“Emergency dispatchers can lead 911 callers through instructions so they can start with CPR until EMS arrives with defibrillator equipment,” said Susan Macklin, who designs EMS-related courses as the EMS program director at CCCC. “If CPR along with an external defibrillator (either automated or manual) is used within six minutes of a cardiac event, there is an 80% increase in the likelihood for survival.
“I would prefer that everyone learn CPR because it would save so many lives,” added Macklin, saying she hoped to bring a bilingual instructor on board to better accommodate the Spanish-speaking population.
“By training students in hands-only CPR, we are equipping the next generation of lifesavers,” says Anne Miller, executive director of American Heart Association (Triangle & Eastern NC). “CPR, if performed immediately, can double or triple a person’s chance of survival. It’s heartwarming to learn that Airryn was prepared to act quickly in a cardiac emergency, saving her father’s life.”
No one is more grateful and proud of Airryn Wharton than her dad.
“I am so appreciative that she was home and getting ready to go to school and saw me,” Wharton said. “She is my angel. I am very proud of her. It’s a reminder that we have an obligation to take care of ourselves for our children.”
Wharton said he didn’t know what Airryn had done for him until his wife told him in the hospital.
“I didn’t remember anything after arriving back home from driving my younger daughter,” he said.
Airryn says she’s thankful for her dad and her family — and thankful that she didn’t have a first-period class and for the class where she learned CPR.
“When it’s someone you know and CPR has been applied, it hits home how important it is,” says Stubbs.
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