LAWRENCEVILLE -- This Christmas, Sylvia Goalen's baby daughter found a little bell to play with.
Like any other baby, little Olivia immediately stuck the bell in her mouth and it got caught on her first tooth.
As soon as Goalen dislodged the bell, Olivia drew in a breath to cry and the bell went straight into her windpipe.
Even a certified CPR trainer can panic in that moment, but Goalen's 12-year-old sprang into action and performed the Heimlich maneuver on the baby, patting her on the back then the chest and quickly expelling the bell.
Boy, I hope I never have to do that. But thanks to Goalen and Karla Richter, I know what to do if something potentially tragic happens.
Just over a week ago, I earned my certification in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation and First Aid through a free class put on by the Gwinnett County Fire Department.
The class is about saving lives, and Goalen learned that again first-hand when her CPR-certified son was able to save his baby sister.
You see, even having a fire station next door doesn't ensure a paramedic will be at your home in time to save someone whose heart has stopped beating.
So, the firefighters decided to seek out some help, making members of the public first responders to keep a victim alive to give them time to respond.
"Now you are learning CPR, you become a partner with us," Richter said as my class opened last week, explaining that brain cells begin to die within the first four to six minutes after a heart stops beating. "You become a first responder. You can actually save lives."
In 2009, the Fire Department saved a record 69 people who had gone into cardiac arrest. At least some of those were saved, officials said, because someone began CPR before an ambulance arrived.
The department won a prestigious award for the National Association of Counties for the program, which taught 5,465 county residents last year, including nearly 4,000 children in schools. Recently, officials started offering the class in Spanish at least once a month, which has had a huge impact on the community, Goalen said.
CPR, Richter explained, is about mimicking what the body would do during a normal day. Pumping on a chest simulates a heart beat and resuscitating breaths helps to further spread oxygen throughout the body.
Some function, she said, is better than none, especially when quick response is the key to keeping someone alive.
"We're just buying this patient time until professional help arrives," she said. "The longer they go unresponsive without some help, the less likely they are to survive."
The steps are simple. With no medical experience at all, I learned CPR in one morning.
And I wasn't the only one. The class was filled with people willing to step out and help in an emergency -- a dad with two small kids, a couple going through the adoption process, a home day-care owner with epilepsy who knows how crucial it is to have help nearby.
Many of my classmates were taking the course for their jobs, but some just wanted to understand how to help a grandchild or an aging spouse if something goes wrong.
"If you can remember A, B, C and D and two, 30 and five, you can do CPR easy," Goalen said.
We learned how to use the defribilator, the different methods of the Heimlich maneuver and, in the afternoon, first aid for everything from burns to snake bites.
Preparing for the worst
I'm lucky. I haven't been in a situation where I had to sit helplessly by while a loved one -- or a stranger -- was in trouble.
But I've had to help when my fiance has gone into a diabetic crisis, and I know it's only a matter of time until I encounter a wreck, someone at work gets sick or a child begins to choke at a church potluck.
It's better to be prepared than not.
My brother is a firefighter, and I know he can help me if something goes wrong. I figured I should be prepared to return the favor.
Ken Manning, the owner of Trident Medical Imaging, has required his staffers for years to be CPR-trained.
In December, during a men's basketball game, his own training kicked in when a friend collapsed on the court.
"It was intense," Manning said of the situation, when his friend Mike Lulco suffered a heart attack just days before Christmas, his family looking on.
"It's something you never want to use, but when something happens you remember it," he said of his CPR training.
Along with some of his co-workers, Manning was able to begin CPR and then use an AED to shock Lulco when his heart stopped beating. The AED, he said, got Lulco's heart beating five minutes before paramedics arrived at the Suwanee Sports Academy.
Lulco later had quadruple bypass surgery and is recovering well.
"When one of your best friends is lying in front of you, turning blue and not breathing, it's quite an experience," he said. "You go through a couple hours CPR course, and you are able to save someone's life."
Manning and two other men will receive a recognition from the Fire Department next week for their efforts.
"I don't need a stethoscope. I can use my senses," Richter said during my CPR class, explaining that people don't need a medical degree to help with first aid.
"It all happens in the first few minutes," said Jeremy Webb, the fire inspector who recently took over the program. "Everybody plays a part (in saving a life). ... This gets everyone on our team."