MAUMELLE, Ark. – A college wrestling coach, a heartbroken mom, and a CPR instructor.
Three people you wouldn’t expect to all be in the same place, but that’s what it took to save a little girl when she started to choke.
Rachel Brewer and her daughter, 12-year-old Ava, were running errands on April 3 when the duo decided to get their car cleaned. As Brewer’s car headed into the car wash, she handed Ava a donut hole the two had picked up earlier, something Ava loved.
But soon after, Brewer realized something was horribly wrong.
“I looked back and saw that she was choking,” Brewer remembered.
Ava has Angelman Syndrome, a neurogenetic disorder that causes developmental delays. Ava has choked on food before, but as Brewer unbuckled her from her car seat to give her the Heimlich maneuver, she realized this was an emergency situation.
As Brewer struggled to get her child to breathe again, Ava soon stopped taking in air, had a seizure, and passed out. Brewer says in the Sunday crowd of the shopping center, no one helped.
“It was probably the most alone I’ve ever felt in the middle of a populated area,” Brewer said, wiping away tears.
But someone did notice. Headed along Maumelle Blvd. on his way to church, UA Little Rock wrestling coach Neil Erisman noticed what he thought was a woman in a parking lot doing the Heimlich maneuver.
“I did a double-take,” Erisman remembered, “and just thought like, I didn’t see what I just saw, there’s no way.”
It was the first time Erisman was late to church, leaving home after the service had already begun. He says if he left any sooner, he would have missed the Brewers and wouldn’t have been able to help.
Erisman quickly pulled back around, hopped out of his car and took over the Heimlich as Brewer spoke to emergency operators.
“At that point,” said Erisman, “I just started praying, God, please don’t let this mama watch her baby die.”
While Erisman worked, across the parking lot, Catie Tugwell was exiting the car wash. She says she wouldn’t have stopped at the shopping complex if her son hadn’t begged to go through the wash, another coincidental incident that led her to happen upon the scene.
Tugwell soon spotted Erisman with Ava and Brewer, still doing the Heimlich. She and Erisman’s sons played soccer together, so she rolled down her window to say hello when she realized what was going on. Tugwell, a CPR instructor since the age of 14, jumped into action.
Together, the three kept Ava alive for the 8 minutes it took EMTs to arrive, alternating between CPR and rolling Ava over to relieve the seizures. A third bystander had arrived at this point to keep Brewer calm, a woman she says she never got the name of.
For everyone involved, they agree it was miracle they were all there.
“It was definitely a God moment,” Erisman said.
Brewer was able to thank both Erisman and Tugwell after Ava was released from the hospital, smiling like always and with no lasting damage. Brewer and Erisman go to the same church but had never met – something that changed a week later at Sunday service when Brewer gave him and his entire family a hug that spoke volumes.
“How do you thank someone for saving your child’s life?” Brewer questioned. “There’s no thank you big enough.”
Erisman says he now plans on making sure everyone on his wrestling team are all CPR certified.
To learn CPR or the Heimlich maneuver for yourself, check out courses online and in-person through The American Red Cross and The American Heart Association.