Smithtown student saves her mom from choking after learning the Heimlich in class


Sarah Desthers remembers being ready to go to sleep for the night when the terrifying noise of her mother choking jolted her out of bed.

“My eyes were basically shut, but my door was open so I was able to hear what was going on,” the 15-year-old said. “And I heard this coughing, thumping noise, I can’t even describe it.

“It was terrifying because I thought one of my dogs were coughing or something. I walk down to the living room and my dogs are fine,” Sarah continued, recalling the frightening Jan. 12 incident. “But then I see my mom in the kitchen and her hands are around her throat and she’s gagging.”

When Sarah asked her mother, Kim Desthers, if she was choking, the woman nodded her head up and down. With that, the Smithtown High School West student quickly went into action, performing the Heimlich maneuver to save her mother’s life.

Sarah had learned the life-saving technique just a few weeks prior, practicing it on a mannequin in her First Aid CPR and AED health elective class.

It was about 9 p.m. and Desthers was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. She decided to eat one more spoonful of rice. It was nearly her last.

“I didn’t even know how to respond to myself,” Desthers, 43, said. “I didn’t do anything, I didn’t even look for somebody to help me.”

Desthers’ youngest daughter Abigail, 7, was asleep, and her 13-year-old Amanda was finishing her homework. Her husband John, 47, a first responder for the New York Fire Department, was already in bed for the night, ahead of an early shift the next day.

But Sarah heard the commotion and responded just in time — using two thrusts to dislodge the rice from her mother.

“It was crazy, a 15-year-old having to do that to her mother,” Kim Desthers said. “If she wasn’t there, I’d be dead.”

‘No time to panic’

Sarah never hesitated to put her newfound knowledge to the test. She did not even contemplate waking her father, who is more experienced in such life-and-death moments.

“Without hesitation, I went over there and gave her the Heimlich. The food came up and she was able to breathe again,” Sarah said. “Of course, I felt frightened. But in that kind of time, there’s no time to panic. I learned you just have to do what you know how to do, help the person, and then panic later.”

In her First Aid health course, Smithtown High School West teacher Cherie Diamond prepares students to overcome the stress of situations that call for life-saving action.

“You can know all the First Aid in the world, but if you freeze and you’re too stressed out, then you won’t remember it or you won’t do it,” Diamond said. “So, I actually teach stress management techniques. We do breathing: I say you need to be able to calm your own anxiety.

“Sometimes First Aid is not just doing physical First Aid on somebody’s body, it’s also mental First Aid on somebody’s mind, calming them down,” she added.

‘You think that could never happen’

After the incident, Kim Desthers emailed Diamond, thanking her for teaching her daughter the Heimlich maneuver. Diamond then asked Sarah Desthers to share the story in class to process the experience.

The instructor said the tale was met with applause.

Although she has taught at Smithtown since 2001, Diamond said this is the first time a student has ever told her they used the Heimlich maneuver in real life. She herself only used it twice, the first time on her father when she was just a high school student herself.

When deciding what elective to take, Sarah chose Diamond’s First Aid course because she saw its real world potential.

“I think it’s something good to know, just to be able to help people.” she said. “In any emergency, you never know what could happen. It’s something you see in movies and you think that could never happen, and it happens.”