Kevin Tomsia remembers only pieces of the day he nearly lost his life.
“It was like a normal day,” the 17-year-old recalled of that late April morning at Maine South High School in Park Ridge. “It was the first three minutes of gym class and we were running a warm-up lap. I just ran the lap and then everything went dark.”
When he opened his eyes, he was in a hospital emergency room, a crowd of medical personnel around him.
“I remember screaming,” he said. “I don’t know if it was shock or pain or both.”
In the time between Kevin’s collapse on the field house track and his waking up in the hospital, he had gone into cardiac arrest, stopped breathing and — thanks to a series of actions that began when a fellow student started CPR — had his young life saved, say family members, school personnel and fire department officials.
“I don’t think I realized how serious it was,” Kevin said less than a month after his April 29 ordeal, which included surgery to implant a pacemaker and defibrillator. “Obviously, it was more stressful for everyone around me. I just woke up in the hospital; that’s all I remember.”
Michael Frazier, 17, was also in the field house that day, part of a different P.E. class, when he heard coach Don Lee call for help and saw him kneeling next to a student who was on the ground. Michael, a Mystic Waters lifeguard with ambitions to become a paramedic, didn’t hesitate to respond.
“I ran over and told them I was a lifeguard and asked how I could help,” Michael said. “(The teacher) told me (Kevin) had collapsed and he couldn’t find a pulse. I couldn’t find one either.”
Michael had never met Kevin. He had also never had to use his two years of first aid training in any real-world emergencies. But that training immediately kicked in. He and Lee began CPR on Kevin while another P.E. teacher, Brian Lorenz, ran to grab the field house’s automated external defibrillator, or AED.
Kevin seemed to be struggling to breathe, almost gasping for air, Michael recalled. But, again thinking back to his CPR training, he quickly recognized this was agonal breathing, a sign of a serious condition.
“I realized he was in cardiac arrest,” Michael said.
While P.E. teacher David Inserra stayed on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, Michael and Lee took turns performing CPR on Kevin and using the AED to administer shocks to his heart.
One shock was followed by a second. And then a third, Michael recalled.
“It was not telling us that his heart was working again,” Lee noted.
By the time school nurse Brenda Lynch had taken over for Lee, a team of Park Ridge paramedics were making their way into the field house. They quickly assessed Kevin and used their own equipment to try and shock Kevin’s heart back into rhythm, Lee said.
“They shocked him a fourth time and he regained sinus rhythm,” Michael explained. “I knew it because on their cardiac monitor I saw a heartbeat. And I heard a paramedic say he was struggling to breathe, but he was breathing on his own.”
Soon, Kevin was in the back of an ambulance and on his way to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital.
School officials have lauded Michael for his quick thinking and first aid, and selected him as a recipient of a Goodwill Award just prior to his graduation on May 19. When asked if Michael Frazier is a hero, Maine South Principal Ben Collins replied, “Absolutely.”
“He was just so humble about the entire experience and so matter-of-fact about it,” Collins said. “It just blows you away.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Michael said he plans to study for an emergency medical technician license at Harper College and later become a paramedic.
For people in these career fields, he said, saving lives is all in the day’s work.
“I talk to paramedics, firefighters and police officers all the time, so I got in that mindset where, to me, what I did was just another day,” Michael said. “It took me a day or two to realize this isn’t normal. Students, even if they are lifeguards and well-trained, don’t normally do stuff like this. So it took some getting used to.”
But Michael’s mother, Donna O’Brien, said her son has always been focused on helping others. When leaving for Lollapalooza one year, he remarked, “I hope I’m around if somebody needs first aid,” she said.
On April 29, he was.
“I keep thinking that if we hadn’t moved back (to Park Ridge from Wisconsin), he wouldn’t have been in that specific place at that specific time to provide aid to that boy,” O’Brien said. “Maybe truly things happen for a reason.”
The Tomsias, residents of unincorporated Norwood Park Township, say they are grateful for everyone who came to Kevin’s aid. During a lunch arranged at Maine South shortly after Kevin was released from the hospital, they had an opportunity to meet Michael, Don Lee and others for the first time since Kevin’s cardiac episode.
“I will remember for the rest of my life what they did for my son,” said John Tomsia, Kevin’s father.
“Seeing him recovered and walking around again was amazing,” Michael said of Kevin, acknowledging that if he becomes a paramedic, he is not likely to reconnect with every patient he treats. “Being able to see that means a lot to me.”
Margaret Tomsia, Kevin’s mother, said Kevin was diagnosed with a heart murmur at the age of 4 and was being treated for a heart condition prior to his collapse in the Maine South field house. But Kevin, who played on the school’s soccer team, says he was feeling fine and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
“It just happened so randomly,” he said.
Margaret Tomsia said the incident has taught her not to take life for granted.
“You appreciate life,” she said. “You decide to live every day and be thankful for every day.”
Park Ridge Fire Chief Jeff Sorensen described the call to the Maine South field house as one of the most critical — and “most amazing” — incidents he had seen.
“There were about 20 people on the scene and another 30 at Lutheran General. This was like a 50-person race,” Sorensen said. “Every person who contributed — I wouldn’t want to know what happened if you took one of their contributions away.”
Sorensen also said that immediate CPR and use of an AED “cannot be minimized. Your chance of survival decreases 10 percent every minute of cardiac arrest.”
AEDs are available in all municipal buildings, schools, and park district facilities in Park Ridge, and police officers carry them as well, Sorensen said.
Lee, who is also certified in CPR, said this was the first time in his 26-year career in education that he had to use an AED and chest compressions on a student.
“To, in some small way, assist to keep him alive and keep his brain functioning ... there’s no words to describe how happy I am that he made it,” Lee said.
Everyone who came to Michael’s aid at Maine South will be recognized later this summer at a Park Ridge City Council meeting, Sorensen said.
“The town has had some pretty sad scenarios in recent years, but it’s good to celebrate the wins and let people know their efforts matter,” he said.