Teacher's quick action saves Kelly Elementary student from choking

Kelly Elementary teacher's first-time use of Heimlich training de-escalates "pretty scary" choking incident.

Cullen Capes, 10, a fourth-grader at J. Nelson Kelly Elementary school in Grand Forks, is photographed outside of his school with his teacher, Jo Miller, who performed the Heimlich maneuver on Cullen last week when he was choking on a small piece of candy in the classroom. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Jo Miller will not soon forget the look on Cullen Capes’ face when he was choking on a piece of candy last week in her fourth-grade class.

“It was just a look of sheer panic, like, it’s bad,” she said of the incident that took place Wednesday, Jan. 7, in her classroom at Kelly Elementary School. “He was clutching his throat, and I could tell that something had lodged.”

“It was a very, like, ‘please help me’ look,” she said. “I knew it wasn’t just something that he was going to cough and it was going to come out. He had a real panicked look, very serious, scared.”

Moments before, Cullen had bent over at his desk to pick something up and when he sat back up, the candy lodged in his throat.

He could feel it when it stopped there, he said.


Miller had been walking around the back of her classroom and had just returned to the front, where Cullen was seated, when she spotted him, banging his desk and clutching his throat.

“I happened to be in the front of the classroom -- that was kind of meant to be," she said.

She told her paraprofessional, Amber Tollefson, to run and get the school nurse and told her other 18 students, “room clear,” a signal to go, as they’ve been trained, to Krista Cebula’s nearby classroom.

“I tried the blows to (Cullen’s) back and that didn’t do anything, and he continued to struggle,” she said. “So then I grabbed him and just tried to get him in a good position for the Heimlich maneuver.”

On the first attempt, the candy didn’t come up, she said. “Then the second one, I got just a really good position and was able to give a nice thrust and it came out.”

Miller emphasized that the happy ending was the result of “a team effort,” including Tollefson, Kim Novacek, school counselor,
and Wanda Rosenquist, school nurse.

Rosenquist helped to calm Cullen, with measured breathing, and took him to her office, where she contacted his parents and had him speak to his mother by phone. The counselor, Novacek, stayed with Miller’s students in the classroom, through the school’s lunch period. Rosenquist and Cullen joined them later.

“Thank goodness for teammates, for co-workers,” Miller said.


Quick action

Jennifer Novak, Cullen’s mother, is also very thankful for Miller’s quick thinking and action, she said.

“Thank goodness, she knew what to do,” she said, referring to the teacher’s use of the Heimlich maneuver. "Because if she didn’t, it could’ve been a lot worse.”

Novak is 100% pleased with the way the incident was handled, she said.

“It could happen anytime anywhere," she said

One of the great things Miller did was send the kids to another classroom, she said.

"They didn’t have to witness it -- that was her instinct, to get the kids out of the class. That just shows how level-headed and quick-minded she is," Novak said.

"(Miller) made a world of difference,” Novak said. “(The kids) didn’t have to see it, so they don’t have that mental image in their mind.”

Ashley Lizakowski, the fiance’ of Cullen’s father, Jason Capes, called Miller “amazing” and “fast-acting” in the way she handled the incident.


“She went above and beyond her call of teaching," said Lizakowski, who talked with Miller by phone later that day. “She was just beside herself. It was a pretty scary moment for both of them, she said.”

Later that day, Cullen was back to his “sunny, happy-go-lucky self,” Lizakowski said. “Right after school, he was dancing around -- you know, kids are resilient.”

He went to hockey practice later that day, she said.

Miller, who has never previously used the Heimlich maneuver on students, received training in that skill as a senior in high school at Fosston, Minn.

"(That training) just popped into my head,” she said. "Thank goodness, it worked for me.”

Employees in each Grand Forks school are trained to handle this and other emergencies, she said.

Recalling the incident, Miller said Principal Mike LaMoine and Assistant Principal LuAnn Schmidt also came to her classroom “to make sure everything was OK and make sure that Cullen was OK,” and to talk with the students.

“Mr. LaMoine shared that he was so happy that everything turned out OK, and thanked the kiddoes for clearing the room,” Miller said.

Miller, the school counselor and nurse also talked with the students about what had happened.

The students had a lot of questions, which got “deeper” and “personal,” Miller said, adding that the counselor, Novacek, “did a beautiful job” in talking to kids.

Miller, who’s in her third year of teaching fourth grade at Kelly and has been a paraprofessional there since 2010, sought to turn the event into a learning opportunity.

“You know, we can do hard things -- your adrenaline kind of gets pumping -- and you know, sometimes you think, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do this,’ but you can, we can,” she said.

“We did talk about how, right now, there’s a lot of tough things going on -- there’s a lot of sadness, there’s a lot of loss. But we looked at this situation and, sometimes, when we have tough things, hard things, good comes out of it. We were able to help Cullen -- and he’s fine. He really didn’t even have much of a sore throat or anything. He didn’t suffer, really, anything from that," Novacek said.

"In these tough times, it’s so wonderful we can celebrate that something positive can come out of this," she said.

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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