Last year, Richard McDowell got a call from a distraught teacher upstairs at Galileo High School in San Francisco: A substitute teacher had fallen on the walkway and was bleeding. Because McDowell runs the school’s Health Academy, which includes an emergency medical services class in its program, it’s not unusual for students and faculty to turn to him if they can’t reach the front office or find the nurse.
McDowell ran up, noticed the man had no pulse, and started doing hands-only CPR, considered as effective as mouth-to-mouth CPR in the first few minutes of sudden cardiac arrest. He continued to do compressions even after paramedics arrived. Ever the teacher, McDowell pointed out to his students that the device paramedics were inserting into the injured man’s mouth to keep his airway open was the exact same device they’d been covering in class.
On the annual American Heart Association lobby day: “Students get to see how government works, how citizens take action. They work on their leadership and communication skills.”
The man survived, and McDowell, a member of United Educators of San Francisco, was recognized in May by the city’s Department of Emergency Management for his life-saving effort.
“The irony is that the year before, my students and I traveled to Sacramento to convince lawmakers to support an American Heart Association [AHA] bill to include instruction in hands-only CPR in any required high school health course,” McDowell says. (The bill, AB 1719, passed and will go into effect next year.)
Every year for nearly 10 years, McDowell has brought up to 70 students by bus to the state Capitol to advocate for AHA policies. In June, he received the association’s Western States Affiliate 2017 Outstanding Advocacy Efforts Award, one of its top honors given to volunteers. “Hundreds of his students put a face to our issues, and are key to securing meetings with legislators,” notes the AHA release.
McDowell says the annual trip is “golden.” “Students get to see how government works, how citizens take action. They work on their leadership and communication skills.”
McDowell has been an educator and Galileo teacher for 20 years, starting the Health Academy in 2001 to “create a pipeline from school to work, or a postsecondary program or college.” Juniors and seniors learn about issues and careers in health science. The curriculum includes courses at City College of San Francisco and internships at California Pacific Medical Center.
McDowell has also been recognized by AHA for helping pilot a cooking nutrition class that brings in chefs to teach students how to make inexpensive, heart-healthy meals. The program has expanded to five other states and over 100 schools.
While his hands-on classroom contains everything from oxygen tanks to obstetric mannequins (to practice delivering babies), McDowell admits that his real-life life-saving feat had a big impact on his students. “It gave me cred for a couple of months.”