Trumbull's 'Frenchtown Five' hailed as heroes after saving choking child

Adrian, a third-grade student at Frenchtown Elementary School, poses with, from left, his teacher Rachel Dustin, school nurse Merry Naeher-Olson and his in-school assistant, Sheela Gadkar, in Trumbull, Conn. May 19, 2021.

Adrian, a third-grade student at Frenchtown Elementary School, poses with, from left, his teacher Rachel Dustin, school nurse Merry Naeher-Olson and his in-school assistant, Sheela Gadkar, in Trumbull, Conn. May 19, 2021.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

TRUMBULL — The phone call came in like any other communication from Frenchtown Elementary School.

But Kate knew something was different right away.

“Every time the school calls, the first thing they say is, ‘Everything is OK,’” she said. “And this time the tone was distinctly different. It was the nurse calling from the school and she said everything was OK, but that they’d had a bit of a scare.”

The school was calling with jarring news — Kate’s son Adrian, a third-grade student with special needs, had choked on his school snack. But quick action on the part of school staff members had prevented what could have been a tragedy.

The staff members, dubbed “The Frenchtown Five” by Principal Gina Prisco, recently received special recognition by the Board of Education for their quick and decisive action.

“Thankfully, things like this don’t happen very often, but when they do, they can create upheaval and panic,” Prisco said. “But the situation happened, and they handled it. The rest of the school didn’t even know anything unusual was happening.”

Rachel Dustin, Adrian’s teacher, said the students in her class had just settled down for snack time on April 9, the last day of school before Spring Break.

“I usually read a story to them during their snack, and I had just opened up one of the chapter books,” she said. “Then Adrian started coughing.”

Dustin walked over toward Adrian as Sheela Gadkar, his in-school assistant, asked him if he was OK.

Then Adrian stopped coughing. The cracker he had put in his mouth blocked his airway, preventing him from making any sounds.

“He started struggling for air, and he started turning red,” Gadkar said.

Dustin reacted immediately, directing teacher assistant Gabrielle Vega to call the school nurse. She then wrapped her arms around Adrian from behind and began delivering abdominal thrusts.

“I was a certified lifeguard in my younger days, so I had learned how to do it,” Dustin said. “And a school nurse I used to work with had always done refresher courses, but I had never done it in an actual emergency.”

After two or three thrusts, the cracker dislodged and Adrian (and Dustin and Gadkar) could breathe again.

“He was pretty scared, but he was calm,” Gadkar said.

He wasn’t the only one. Dustin said she consciously tried to keep a “game face” on, but worst-case scenarios were running through her head.

“Once the coughing changed to gasping, I knew it was go-time, I had to do it,” she said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Is this going to work?’ But then it did, and there was this tremendous relief.”

The whole situation had taken just a few seconds, Gadkar said.

School nurse Merry Naeher-Olson, whose office is on the opposite side of the building from Dustin’s classroom, said she had time to call out to school security officer Scott Sikora to grab the portable defibrillator and follow her. But in the time it took the two to arrive at Dustin’s room, Gadkar and Adrian met them in the hallway as they had begun walking to the nurse’s office.

Prisco, who was on her way back to her own office from a meeting, said she was momentarily startled to see Sikora and Naher-Olson hurrying through the building with the defibrillator.

“I happened upon the situation, but they had already handled it,” she said. “I’m just very thankful everyone knew what to do and everyone stayed calm.”

Naeher-Olson said Adrian recovered quickly. After a few minutes, she said he looked well enough that she decided against calling EMS, instead recommending his parents follow up with his pediatrician to confirm there was no damage to his throat.

Adrian’s father Gary said his son complained of a scratchy throat the next day, but otherwise appeared to have suffered no ill-effect.

Kate said Adrian was essentially over the whole situation by the time she arrived to pick him up.

“They told him he was going to get an early start on the school break, and while I was talking to the school staff, he was already saying, ‘All right, let’s go. Can we go?’” she said.

He has since returned to school without a problem, she said.

“I think it’s a testament to the teachers and staff that he feels so supported and so secure when he’s in the building,” she said. “This could have been really bad, but all of them did what they had to.”

And although Prisco, Superintendent Martin Semmel and the school board have hailed the Frenchtown Five as heroes, Dustin said she has never really been at ease with the accolades.

“It’s just what any other teacher would have done,” she said. “For the seven hours each day that we have them, they’re our babies.”