Pierson CPR Program Hits 20-Year Milestone; State-Mandated Training Clears Hurdle

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For the last decade, advocates and lawmakers have been pushing to pass legislation in Albany that would implement cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, training as a curriculum standard for all high school students.

One of those advocates is Susan Denis, who teaches a comprehensive CPR instructor program at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor. Ms. Denis’s program hit a 20-year milestone this year—and she said her students have saved nearly 30 lives with their knowledge of the life-saving procedure since the program began in 1994.

“To these guys, it’s a no-brainer,” Ms. Denis said of her present and former students.

The program at Pierson consists of a half-year course that certifies students in basic life support, first aid and heartsaver CPR. Students who take the class then use their skills to teach younger kids at the school, as well as adults throughout the community.

Students currently in the class said knowing CPR is a benefit because it will help them save lives if they ever encounter an individual in cardiac arrest.

“If anything happens … you want at least some idea of what to do,” said sophomore Sheila Mackey. “It’s such an easy thing.”

Some have even applied their skills from the classroom to the real world. Two years ago, Emma Romeo, now a senior, performed the Heimlich maneuver on a young boy she was watching while at work as a camp counselor in Bridgehampton. Ms. Romeo said the boy choked on a Goldfish cracker, but by performing the procedure, she was able to save him.

“Learning [the Heimlich] before made it easy to stay calm in the situation,” she said.

Although the students at Pierson have benefited from Ms. Denis’s program for the last two decades, legislation to get CPR training in schools all across the state and in New York City has been juggled in Albany since 2004. Robin Vitale, senior director of government relations for the American Heart Association, said advocates are simply asking for 30 minutes of education every four years so that each cycle of students is exposed to CPR training at some point in their high school careers. State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said the legislation has been difficult to pass because some lawmakers view it as an unfunded mandate for schools.

This week, however, the bill made it out of the State Senate Standing Committee on Rules and was unanimously approved by the Assembly on Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Thiele said.

“After all these years … I was extremely happy,” Mr. Thiele said. “It was great to finally see this bill pass. But we still have a lot of work to do.”

The bill will now travel to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, who has a month to sign it into law, Ms. Vitale said. From there, State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. will have to make a recommendation to the Board of Regents, which has the final say on implementing CPR training in the state high school curriculum.

“It’s a tremendous show of support from the legislature,” Ms. Vitale said. “I think people are really starting to understand that our students would benefit from this. Once the schools understand how simple this is … they will be ready, willing and able.”

Ms. Denis said she was thrilled that the legislation passed, adding that it’s one step closer to ensuring that more lives will be saved from CPR.

“It will make it safer for a lot more people,” she said. “We can always hope that everyone will find a way to teach it.”

According to the American Heart Association, three to five minutes of CPR can triple a person’s survival rate. However, only 10 percent of the 424,000 people who go into cardiac arrest outside of a hospital every year survive, most likely because they do not get timely CPR.

Just 16 states across the country have passed laws requiring that all high school students go through some form of CPR training.

“It’s just a nice thing to know if you have the chance to save someone’s life,” said Pierson High School senior Zachary DePetris.

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