Greyhills senior saves teacher from choking

By Alistair Mountz
Special to the Times

TUBA CITY, March 29, 2012

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(Courtesy photo)

Greyhills Academy senor Craig Pelt, right, is credited with saving the life of his teacher, Geneva Begishie, when she was choking on food.

G reyhills Academy High School senior Craig Pelt never comes to school early. In fact, his entire high school career he's never come to school early one time, so clearly the whole idea was new to him.

That's why he showed up way early on March 8 to meet A+ credit recovery teacher Geneva Begishie, who was helping him make up some work and wrap up his graduation requirements.

"Geneva told me to come in early. I thought she was kidding," recalls Pelt, who had turned up at 6 a.m. "But, I got ready early and walked to school. I got there way early. Almost couldn't get in."

Pelt, 19, of Tuba City, had to explain to a security guard what he was doing there, and eventually a call was made to Begishie's house: "Hey, you have a student here?"

Upon learning she had a student waiting, the 15-year teacher rushed to get ready and then did something she rarely does - she stopped to pick up a ground beef breakfast burrito she planned to eat later.

Teacher and student met at the school and hurried to the classroom, where Pelt finished several assignments by the time the cafeteria opened for breakfast.

Begishie invited Pelt to go get himself something to eat there and pulled out her burrito, munching on it as she got things ready for the school day.

"I was eating it and remembered to do something with the printer," she recalled. "I got up and took an extra breath."

That extra breath, Begishie would learn from emergency room doctors later that day, allowed a tiny piece of burrito to lodge in her breathing passage, where it almost choked her to death and left a fragment in her lung.

"I came in, she was waving her arms and pointing to her back," said Pelt, who returned from the cafeteria to find his teacher frantically trying to breathe. He felt like he was in slow motion.

"It ran through my mind really slow, it took a couple seconds to get the adrenaline rushing," he said. "It felt pretty slow, but it happened all fast.

Doubt flashed across his mind as he thought about laying hands on a teacher, and the cultural rules that might apply.

"It was awkward thinking about the Heimlich (maneuver)," Pelt recalled. "I'm like, 'Aren't you related to me?' That security guard who let me in was her son."

But all Begishie saw was a young man who stood ready to help.

"He patted me on the shoulder at first," she recalled, "but I put his hand on my back. It wasn't helping. Finally, it came up when he hit it really hard."

Afterward, the two didn't speak about the incident. Instead, they sat down and returned to Pelt's schoolwork. In fact, they got four more assignments done before it was time for the first class of the day.

Only then did the import of their experience hit them.

"He got up to go to class," Begishie said. "He gave me a hug, it was very emotional. I told him 'thank you.' He told me not to tell anybody 'I pounded on you because you're staff.'"

Did Pelt save Begishie's life? She has no doubt of it.

"He did," she said. "It was serious. He actually did. The ER doctor asked me how long it was that I was choking. I think it was just over a minute. I couldn't breathe, or talk. I was trying to throw myself at the wall but that wasn't accomplishing anything."

Terrified, she did not see the nearby chair where she could have bent over to force air out of her lungs.

"I was paranoid," Begishie said.

After school she went to the emergency room at the Tuba City hospital because she still wasn't breathing quite right, and said an X-ray showed that a particle of burrito was still in her respiratory system.

She also learned just how lucky she had been, saying, "Anyway, the doctor told me it takes only two minutes to pass out."

In retrospect, Pelt feels good that he could help, and assured the Navajo Times that he would have used the Heimlich maneuver if necessary.

"I actually know how to do the Heimlich," said Pelt, who is Kinlichíi'nii born for Bit'ahnii. "I went through Boy Scouts of America. Just one year, but I learned some CPR."

That's the story of how the kid who never comes to school early showed up before dawn one day and saved a life, and the quirky though fateful events that linked two such unexpected occurrences together.

Pelt's heroic action did not go unheralded and he received high praise from the school's top administrator, CEO Beverly Crawford.

"I am really proud of Craig, that he saved the life of one our teachers," Crawford said. "I was pleased to hear that our students are like that here at Greyhills Academy High School."

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