When Wake Forest 17-year-old Katie Nickels went with her family to Emerald Isle, she thought it would be just a fun week at the beach.
And it was, until on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, just two days before the Fourth of July, she was summoned by cries from next door. “Help me! Help me! She’s dying!” a neighbor was yelling.
Katie’s 19-year-old sister Carly ran in with the news that a 3-year-old had fallen into the neighbors’ pool and needed CPR, so Katie sprang into action.
She found the child, 3-year-old Lilly Russel, lying on the edge of the pool, non-responsive, her face all blue. She had fallen into the in-ground pool when her mother turned around to put a camera away. Her mother had pulled her out, but Lilly had taken in water.
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“I just did it. I did what I learned,” Nickels said. “I didn’t think twice about it.”
She started with 30 chest compressions and two breaths, but Lilly still wasn’t breathing. After another round she finally started breathing again, but Nickels said you could hear the gurgling of water in her throat.
Nickels had learned CPR for a babysitting class in the sixth grade and had been recertified twice in high school. She learned in the class that CPR is different for adults and children – pressing too hard on a small child might break a rib. They had practiced on baby dolls, but she had never put it to use on a real person.
With breathing restored and the color coming back to Lilly’s face, Nickels recalled, the child mustered the strength to cry a little bit. A few minutes later the ambulance with emergency medical service personnel arrived and took her to the hospital.
Lilly’s aunt called Nickels on July 9 to say the child was off the ventilator and breathing on her own again but was still in the hospital.
Nickels’ rapid response played a crucial role, said Emerald Isle EMS Chief Susan Walker, who responded to the 911 call. The time window to save someone with water in their lungs varies by person and situation, Walker explained. It can be between five and eight minutes for adults, but that window can be smaller for children. The EMS unit responded in about four minutes, but at that point Nickels had already restored breathing.
“Definitely she saved that child’s life that day,” Walker said. “I don’t think she even thought about what she was doing. ... She checked the baby out, and it didn’t have a pulse, and she started CPR right away.”
Walker added that she was surprised to find the person providing CPR on the scene was just 17 years old.
“You sort of expect adults to do it, but for a teenager to step in and do it is just great,” Walker said. “It shows how capable our young people are and how bright she is.”
The EMS unit awarded Nickels a certificate of honorary membership, meaning she is welcome in their building at any time. They weren’t the only ones to honor her.
Art Schools, the mayor of Emerald Isle, the barrier island town just southwest of Morehead City, held a ceremony for Nickels on July 5 and presented her with an honorary plaque. The event was bustling with officers and EMS workers, Nickels said, and she stayed for an hour after for interviews with three TV news crews and several newspapers.
The events contributed to Nickels’ interest in pursuing a career in nursing.
“I like seeing people getting better,” she said.
First though, she has her senior year at Wake Forest High School. In the meantime, her mother, Sharon Latinik, wants the whole family to get CPR certified, so they are prepared in case any of them need to use it.
“I was very proud (of Katie),” Latinik said. “Just thank God that we were there. It’s where we were meant to be.”