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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

EWU student uses her lifeguard CPR training to save 16-year-old classmate in cardiac arrest

Taija “Tay” Nelms, 22, visits with Justus Danielli, 16, on March 26.  (Courtesy)

Taija “Tay” Nelms arrived 10 minutes early for her calculus final at Eastern Washington University in late March. A few students were sitting down, and the lights weren’t even on yet.

Moments later, a classmate at a nearby desk collapsed.

Running Start student Justus Danielli, a 16-year-old from Ferris High School there to take the same test, had gone into sudden cardiac arrest. When a 911 dispatcher urged CPR, Nelms acted quickly and used her training from her days as Hillyard pool lifeguard.

She recalled how to count the compressions, and how deep to press. During a cardiac arrest, the heart can’t pump blood to the rest of the body, including the brain and lungs. CPR uses chest compressions to mimic how the heart pumps, to help keep blood flowing throughout the body.

“We couldn’t find an AED or a pulse,” said Nelms, 22, who is credited by family and doctors for saving Danielli’s life.

“The boy fell over out of his chair onto the ground, so I ran out and tried to find a professor to let them know someone has fainted,” Nelms said. “As I was coming back into the classroom, I realized he was in the middle of a seizure … it looks like you’re having a seizure, but it’s really your heart stopping.”

In those seconds, someone had called 911, and Nelms answered the dispatcher’s questions – no, he wasn’t breathing, and she couldn’t find a pulse. If performed in the first few minutes of cardiac arrest, CPR can double or triple a person’s chance of survival.

“As I was speaking with the dispatch, they said, ‘OK, perform CPR right now.’ I went into action because it was shocking to everyone; no one knew what to do,” she said. “I was trained from the city of Spokane, and I was like, ‘I’ll do it.’ ”

Adrenaline took over, and although Nelms thought she’d done CPR for about three minutes, she actually kept up the chest compressions for about 10 minutes, based on what emergency workers have since told her and the family.

After six days at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital, where he got a pacemaker-defibrillator device installed, Danielli is now home and recovering well, said his mom, Larissa Warren. Before his release, Nelms went to visit him at the hospital on March 26.

Warren learned in the aftermath how Nelms quickly notified authorities, then immediately returned to her son.

“Tay started performing CPR, and she had to have done it within seconds,” Warren said. “She had to pull him out from underneath his desk. What we were told is she performed CPR for about 10 minutes until the EMTs and Cheney Fire Department showed up. They then performed CPR on him and shocked him about five times.”

Warren said those emergency responders worked another 30 to 40 minutes to stabilize her son for transport by Life Flight to the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit.

Later, scans and a brain MRI found no damage, Warren said. She tears up describing the first day in the hospital.

“When he arrived, for the first 24 hours he was in a coma and on 100% life support,” Warren said. “They had a ventilator on him. After 24 hours, they were able to start reducing it.

“Nothing is wrong with him. They couldn’t find any reason that caused it besides arrhythmia. He’s always been a healthy kid,” Warren said. “The doctors came out and told us that situations like this often don’t end well. They weren’t sure if he was going to make it, and if he did make it, he’d probably never be himself again because of how long he needed CPR.”

Danielli’s young age perhaps was a factor in his recovery, his mom said, but doctors and nurses repeatedly told her that Nelms’ first 10 minutes of CPR were crucial.

“The doctors credit my son surviving with no brain damage to her quick, heroic actions,” Warren said. “The doctors and nurses were calling Tay a hero, and I definitely agree.”

Nelms had only previously performed CPR on a practice dummy. It still feels surreal, she said.

Turns out, Nelms learned later that she actually knew the family. She and Danielli’s stepbrother, Peyton Warren, were friends at Lewis and Clark High School. She graduated from there in 2019.

Before March 23, she had seen Danielli in the class but hadn’t learned his name or about that connection.

“He’s a fighter. I’m very proud of him. I’m very happy that he’s still here,” Nelms said. “It’s definitely something no one could expect, let alone imagine, possibly losing one of their loved ones, so I’m just really happy I was there in the moment to save him.”

Now an EWU junior, Nelms plans to get a bachelor’s in forensic chemistry with a minor in psychology. She’s hoping for an FBI career as a forensic chemist.

Danielli has taken classes this year at EWU after meeting all required high school classes with “A” grades, Warren said. He’ll be a Ferris senior next year, scheduled to graduate at age 17.

Because he’s so far ahead, she said her son will take the rest of the academic year off to recover. He’s doing physical therapy and slowly gaining back his strength.

Danielli doesn’t recall the time from his collapse to the early hospital stay. He does remember meeting Nelms later.

“That was pretty amazing, what she did,” Danielli said on Tuesday. “Meeting her was very exciting, because obviously without her doing that 10 minutes of CPR, it would have been a very different outcome.”