BELL GARDENS — A quick-thinking cafeteria worker saved the life of a 14-year-old student at Bell Gardens Intermediate School last week when she realized the young man was choking and applied the Heimlich maneuver.
Toni Lopez, 61, a Commerce resident, was working in the cafeteria after lunch Tuesday when another worker commented that James Rosario, an eighth-grade-student cafeteria worker, "didn't look right."
Lopez, who has worked for the school for almost seven years, said at first she thought the boy was kidding around. "He was stomping his foot, and bent over. I said, 'James, what is it? What's wrong?' and he looked up at me and grabbed his throat. That was the sign I've read about, and I thought, 'Uh oh, no, this is a choking.' "
She got behind the youth, who she said was "wringing wet" with perspiration, bent him over, circled her arms around his torso and squeezed. It took three attempts before the food lodged in his windpipe was freed and the young man was able to breathe.
Rosario, who returned to school the next day, said he feels fine now. At the time, however, he said it felt like the episode lasted an hour. "I couldn't talk. I wanted to spit it out, but I couldn't, and I couldn't yell. If nobody had been in the cafeteria with me, I would have been dead right now."
Lopez said she has never had any training in the maneuver, but had seen it demonstrated once on television, and on posters in the cafeteria and the teachers' dining room.
Lopez said she thinks her arms were positioned wrong on her first two attempts. The third time, she said, she made sure her arms were just below the bottom of Rosario's rib cage, and she squeezed so hard she lifted him off the ground. "He was getting heavier and heavier each time," she said. "I think he was passing out."
It wasn't until Rosario was able to breathe again, Lopez said, that she became frightened.
"The Lord guided me and said, 'Keep cool.' Later, it scared me to death," she said.
Inspector Art Contessotto of the Los Angeles County Fire Department said Lopez "undoubtedly saved this boy's life." Contessotto said the signs Lopez noticed--someone unable to speak, grasping at their throat and sweating profusely--are universal indications of choking.
Lopez said there should be more public awareness of the Heimlich maneuver. "This can happen at any time," she said. "The manager of our cafeteria, Jo Quesada, (who put up the posters), keeps telling us to be aware of the children all the time and to be alert for problems like this."