February 12, 2018
By JAMES EVANS
Rutherford County Schools
SMYRNA — It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.
Nearly four years ago, Lauralynn Lifferth rushed to John Coleman Elementary School only to find school officials on the ground actively performing CPR on her son, Ethan. It’s a scene she’ll never forget.
“I showed up four minutes into CPR,” Lifferth said. “Heaven only knows how I made it in four minutes — I live eight minutes away. A friend called and said, ‘You need to get here, something’s not right.’”
It was May, and Ethan, a fifth-grader, had been participating in the school’s annual hike-a-thon, when he suddenly collapsed.
“I was running too much,” said Ethan, now a freshman at Smyrna High School. “I passed out and went into cardiac arrest.”
That’s how long it took to revive Ethan.
An eternity to a worried, helpless parent.
But the quick actions of the school’s nurse, Jonna McCracken, and School Resource Officer, Matt Roe, saved Ethan that day — along with their skillful use of the school’s Automated External Defibrillator, commonly known as an AED.
“Without those administrators, I won’t be here,” Ethan said.
Ethan and his mom recently observed a drill at Smyrna High School in which the school’s first responder team practiced their CPR procedures and how to use an AED. The drill was part of a districtwide effort that Rutherford County Schools is conducting this year to earn a “Heart Safe School” designation from Project ADAM, a non-profit group that promotes CPR and AED training in schools.
During the drill, Ethan watched as Smyrna Coach Justin Morton and teacher Steve Picklesimer rushed to the scene and began giving chest compressions and breaths to a training dummy, while prepping an AED trainer model.
“They all worked together like all you guys did,” Ethan recalled after the drill, referring to his own experience.
Angel Carter is a registered nurse and the Middle Tennessee coordinator for Project ADAM. She also was on hand for the drill to evaluate how the team of first-responders — a group made up of teachers and staff members at the school — responded and performed.
“I have had a great time partnering with Rutherford County because you guys are doing so well in all these activities.,” Carter told the team afterward. “This was a really well done drill.”
Watching the drill was bittersweet for Ethan’s mom, who is thankful for the efforts the schools are making to prepare for health emergencies but also admits she has trouble “letting go” of her son after their ordeal.
“Watching you today, I am very grateful that you have taken this responsibility and that you’ll be ready,” Lifferth said. “It makes it much easier for me to leave him every day, and I appreciate it.”
Throughout this school year, about 40 of Rutherford County’s 47 schools have completed similar drills, RCS Health Services Coordinator Sarah Winters said. The remaining schools will complete their drills throughout the school year, and once completed the district will earn the “Heart Safe School” designation from Project ADAM.
Every Rutherford County school completes a variety of health emergency drills each year, Winters said. Those drills include an EpiPen situation, a mock code, a mass disaster and then the AED response.
“We are making the AED drills more specific to meet the Project ADAM requirements,” Winters explained. “We’re making sure we dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s.”
Rutherford County Schools currently uses about 60 nurses throughout the schools, including supervisors, float nurses and substitutes.
“They’re assigned to the schools based on the medical needs of the students,” Winters said.
When it comes to AEDs, all high schools are equipped with at least four, middle schools with three and elementary schools have one. In all, there are 100 in use by the school district.
As for Ethan, he was diagnosed at the age of nine months with a condition known as “bicuspid aorta valve,” which means his valve only has two flaps instead of three. Ethan had experienced some issues in the past during “growth spurts,” but he had never had a cardiac episode prior to his collapse at John Colemon.
He spent a few weeks at Vanderbilt and the cardiologists tried to determine “what went wrong,” his mom said.
“I can tell you that was the hardest day I have every been through,” said Lifferth, adding, “The second hardest day was watching him walk in (to school) without me, and I put my faith in all those people I had met and the plan they had.”
Today Ethan is an active young man.
He plays on the golf team and swims at Smyrna High School — his mom once swam competitively when she attended the school — and his family members are active hikers and campers.
They take precautions, such as keeping a portable AED in their backpack when hiking, but they prefer to look toward the future instead of fearfully remembering how they nearly lost Ethan four years ago.
“We were told every where we went at Vanderbilt, everybody who came by to see us said, ‘We just want to see the boy who came back from eight minutes of CPR because we don’t ever see anybody come back (from that long),’” Lifferth said.
She added, half jokingly, “So he has a lot of pressure on him. But he has a lot going for him, just being a good person. One day he’ll be a great dad and a great husband. He’ll be very important.”
PHOTOS / JAMES EVANS
(TOP) Smyrna teacher Steve Picklesimer and Coach Justin Morton user an AED trainer unit during a drill at the school.
(MIDDLE) Smyrna freshman Ethan Lifferth, left, his mom, Lauralynn Lifferth, and John Colemon nurse, Jonna McCracken, talk about their experience four years ago, when Ethan went into cardiac arrest as a fifth-grader during a hike-a-thon event at the elementary school.
(BOTTOM) Members of Smyrna High School's First Responder team, along with school district nursing representatives and the Lifferth family pose for a group photo.