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BSU student helps save stepfather's life

Kelsey Johnson, a fourth-year nursing student at Bemidji State University, learned more about helping people this year than she ever thought possible. Johnson helped save her stepfather's life over Christmas break. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Kelsey Johnson, a nursing student at Bemidji State University, has spent much of the last four years learning how to take care of people.

But she never expected she would so quickly be faced with a real life-or-death situation, until Christmas break, when she helped save her stepfather's life.

Johnson, 22, who was raised in Rochester, Minn., expects to graduate from BSU this spring with a four-year degree in registered nursing. After she graduates she wants to move back to Rochester with her 4-year-old son, Kaden, in hopes of finding a nursing position.

The move will bring her closer to her immediate family, which is important to her, especially after what happened during the holidays.

When Johnson's first semester classes ended in December, she drove to Rochester to spend time at home during the holiday break. She traveled with her grandparents, whom she lives with in Bemidji.

Johnson looked forward to spending time with her mother, Julia Gallagher, and her stepfather, Chris Schomenta, who had recently been diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer.

"He has been in my life since I was 9 years old," Johnson said. "He has been a father figure to me. He's been really involved in my life and my son's life."

Schomenta had received his second dose of chemotherapy treatment two days prior to Christmas. Johnson recalls noticing her stepfather appeared fatigued during that time but said she expected it since he had been undergoing cancer treatment.

"Everything was fine. He was a little tired, but he was himself," Johnson said.

The morning after Christmas, Johnson said her mother and stepfather got out of bed around 8 a.m. She said her stepfather let the dogs outside and then immediately laid down on the couch. After her mother had not heard her stepfather respond to a comment she made, her mother went to check on her husband.

"He was on the couch," Johnson said. "My mom said she could tell something was wrong and my sister ran downstairs to get me. I was still not fully awake."

Johnson ran upstairs after being told by her sister their stepfather was having a seizure. Along the way she dialed 911, not realizing her mother was already on the phone with emergency personnel. She found her stepfather laying on the couch.

"My sister was screaming and I was scared," Johnson said. "His eyes were open and he was making this moaning noise. His fists were clinched so tight."

She then placed two fingers on her stepfather's neck, feeling for a pulse, but could not find one. She placed two fingers on his wrist and felt a rapid pulse.

Johnson assumed her stepfather was having a seizure, so she placed him on his side and waited a few seconds.

The emergency responder on the phone with Johnson instructed her to place her stepfather onto his back because he may be going into cardiac arrest.

"I was holding his head and he was turning bright red in my arms," she said. "Then he started turning blue. That's when my mom started screaming."

Johnson said she then noticed her stepfather's face turned white and suddenly his body fell limp in her arms.

"It was silent for about two seconds," she said. "Then I told my grandma, 'Go get my keys!'"

On her set of car keys Johnson had a breathing barrier used for administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR. Her grandmother brought over her keys and Johnson prepared to perform CPR on her stepfather.

She took her stepfather's feet off the couch and placed them on the floor. Then she "bear-hugged" his chest and placed the 6-foot-tall, 220-pound man on the floor.

She placed the breathing barrier on the floor near his head in case she needed it and began chest compressions. She continued compressions for 10 minutes before a police officer arrived on scene.

"The only thing that was going through my mind was '1 and 2 and 3 and 4,'" Johnson said. "I was just counting over and over again."

The police officer who arrived brought an automated external defibrillator, or AED. While he prepared the AED, he told Johnson to continue chest compressions.

Johnson was then relieved from doing compressions. The officer used the AED to shock Schomenta's heart several times before a pulse was recovered. The fire department and an ambulance arrived shortly thereafter and Johnson was immediately transported to the hospital.

"What was most impressive was how cool and calm she was," Johnson's grandmother, Nancy Gallagher, said of her granddaughter. "It was all business. She was going to take care of this. She didn't get flustered. She was just so calm."

While Johnson did not have to administer mouth-to-mouth rescue breaths to her stepfather, she was thankful she had a breathing barrier on her keychain. She recommends people who are certified in CPR carry a breathing barrier with them at all times.

"If you ever need to use your CPR skills, you're going to regret not having one, because you're not going to want to give mouth-to-mouth," she said.

She said while she would have given mouth-to-mouth to her stepfather if he needed it, a mask makes the procedure easier.

"If it hadn't been for her, (Schomenta) would have died," Nancy Gallagher said. "He would have been without oxygen for 10 minutes."

Johnson said she now feels more comfortable with the thought of becoming an emergency room nurse.

"I can keep someone alive for 10 minutes, and if I can do that, I know more help always comes," she said.

Today, Johnson said her stepfather has made big strides in recovering from his cardiac arrest and continues to undergo treatment for his cancer.

She said she has always admired his good sense of humor and witty sarcasm.

While Schomenta was in the hospital after his cardiac arrest, Johnson said her stepfather had trouble remembering why he was there.

"While I was away, my mother told him what had happened and that I had given him CPR. My mom said he told her, 'Well, remember to thank her,'" Johnson said.

Eventually, Johnson said, her stepfather did remember. One day, as Johnson walked into the hospital room, her stepfather had a big smile on his face and thanked her for saving his life.

"He gave me a huge hug, which isn't like him," Johnson said. "We haven't had that kind of relationship. But now I feel a little (closer) with him."

Johnson said it was hard for her and her mother to tell Schomenta about his cardiac arrest.

"For a good 30 seconds before I got him on the floor, he was dead," Johnson said. "It was weird. He was just a body. He was gone. It was just me and him."

Johnson said she feels proud she helped her stepfather survive his cardiac arrest, but admitted feeling saddened once she realized he still has cancer.

"We were all like, 'Yay! He's better!' and then it dawned on us, 'But he still has cancer,'" Johnson said. "All of us forgot about the cancer."

She said she hopes her stepfather and mother keep a positive attitude about Schomenta's current state of health.

Having given birth to her son when she was 17 years old, Johnson has learned the importance of keeping a positive attitude and perseverance. Being a young mom in high school and trying to get into college was not always easy.

"I have always been driven and applied myself and I think that's the reason I'm still in school," she said. "Anyone can do something if they want to. So what if I had a kid when I was 17? I'm going to do what I want to do."

Nancy Hall, assistant professor of nursing at BSU, said she is "optimistic" about Johnson's future as a nurse.

"She has a lot of energy and optimism. She's worked really hard. (Nursing) is a rigorous program and it takes a lot of effort," Hall said.

Hall said the nursing program at BSU gave Johnson the exposure to working with acutely ill patients. Nursing students work with fake patients in a hospital setting and learn how to take care of a variety of sick patients.

"They learn how to respond to emergency situations and to have confidence," Hall said. "(Johnson) certainly had the confidence."

Johnson attributes her driven attitude to having supportive parents. She looks forward to taking the Minnesota Board Nursing Exam in May. Passing the exam will give her a license in registered nursing.

"I enjoy helping people," she said. "It's what I want to do."