By Claudia Parker
Kristin Bilas is being called a hero for saving the life of a third-grade student at Northeast Elementary School in Evergreen Park who was choking during lunch.
“I was talking to my friends, one of them said something funny right when I ate a potato chip. I laughed and that’s when it got stuck,” said Anthony Gonzalez, 9.
Bilas is a fourth-year Speech and Language pathologist at Northeast School. She also serves as the school’s student council director and lunch room supervisor.
“On a typical day in the cafeteria, I’m chatting with students while helping them peel lids off their yogurt or opening up a juice box,” said Bilas. “On Thursday, Jan. 14, a typical day wasn’t so typical. I saw Anthony stand abruptly. The international sign for choking is this.” She put her hands to her throat.
“I’m not even sure if he realized that’s what he was doing because at that point he was losing color and his eyes were watery,” recalls Bilas. Reflecting back, she began to tear up. “I ran towards him. It felt like in slow motion, ‘Are you joking,’ I asked? I performed the Heimlich maneuver.”
The Heimlich maneuver is administered when a person cannot breathe, speak or cough. Gripping above the waist but below the ribs, with one thumb held inward, the other hand gives quick in and upward thrusts until the item is dislodged.
Bilas said it took four thrusts before Anthony was breathing again. “It felt like a long time without air,” said Anthony. “It was really scary.”
“Scared” was the look on some of the student’s faces as they observed. “Several of the girls nearby cheered once he started breathing but some of the guys stared in shock,” said Bilas. “When he breathed, we collapsed into a hug of relief.” Tears slipped off her cheeks. “I’m the mother of a third-grader myself.”
Two weekends each month, Bilas also works at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey where she helps recovering stroke patients relearn to swallow. The hospital mandates that all employees are certified in the Heimlich and CPR. “I’ve practiced on hundreds of manikins but never in a real life situation.” Bilas said, “The same muscle that helps you speak, helps you swallow. Sometime we take for granted how complicated that process can be.”
Anthony said he realized he was in trouble and tried to help himself by taking a drink of milk. “I kept trying to drink the milk but it wasn’t working. It wouldn’t go down.” Anthony said, “I looked around to see who could help me. I was trying to tap my friend next to me, he raised his hand to try to find someone. When I saw Mrs. Bilas, I knew she’d be able to help me.”
Anthony serves as the third grade student council representative.
Fabian and Ashley Gonzalez are Anthony’s parents. He’s the middle of their three children: Christian’s a seventh grader at Central Middle School and Mia’s in first grade at NE with Anthony. “I feel like I get calls from the nurse daily,” said Ashley Gonzalez. “Mia’s always bumping into something. She and the nurse are like BFF’s. When I heard the voicemail I thought it’d be about her.”
Ashley Gonzalez went on to say this isn’t the first time Anthony has choked; it’s happened once before at home. “We were having dinner one evening. I thought he was goofing around. I hit him on the back saying, ‘stop joking like that,’ but it wasn’t a joke. Once I hit him, food popped out and tears fell from his eyes,” said Ashley Gonzalez. “I was like, oh my God, I was terrified. You know, sometimes life moves fast and our mornings can be a little hectic. I don’t even remember what I said to him that Thursday. Things like this make me want to just slow down…hold my kids a little longer and a little tighter.”
To show their appreciation, Mr. and Mrs. Gonzalez showered Bilas with gifts: Fannie Mae chocolate, gift cards for dinner and a movie, and flowers. “I hand-picked the candy in that box,” Anthony said. “Me and Mrs. Bilas are going to be really good friends.”
Northeast Principal Jackie Janicke was in an administrative meeting outside the building when the incident occurred. Anthony explained his account of her reaction. “I was in music class and Ms. Janicke ripped the door opened and grabbed me, giving me a big hug,” he said.
“Oh, I did,” asked a smiling Janicke? “I remember the hug. I guess I don’t realize how fast our doors swing open,” she said modestly. “I was just relieved he was OK. I got Mrs. Bilas flowers and