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COLUMBIA FALLS -- The morning of Jan. 4 began as any other Wednesday at Columbia Falls High School, with gym class.

Before the period was through, two heroes had been born, a boy was back from the dead and a piece of electronic equipment the size of a lunch box was instrumental in saving the day.

Cole Brown, a 16-year-old freshman, started his morning routine by running stair laps around the high school gymnasium, followed by some calisthenics and knee-kicks. Then, suddenly and without warning, he collapsed from cardiac arrest.

School nurse Cathy Dragonfly checked that he was conscious and breathing and called 9-1-1. Athletic trainer Troy Bowman arrived seconds later, just in time to witness Brown quit breathing and immediately begin turning blue.

The pair began performing CPR, with Dragonfly giving breaths and Bowman performing chest compressions. Another instructor retrieved an Automated External Defibrillator mounted to the brick wall 20 feet away. Bowman and Dragonfly worked quickly to cut away Brown's T-shirt with a pair of scissors and attach the shock pads to his chest.

"One shock and his heart started beating again," Dragonfly said. "When he took that first breath I thought, ‘This is a miracle.' "

Brown has an underlying, undiagnosed heart condition that precipitated his cardiac arrest, and he was back in school last week after doctors determined there was no brain damage, even though he was unconscious without a pulse for between three and five minutes.

It's an outcome that could have ended in tragedy but for the quick thinking of everyone involved, and in Bowman's case, due to the foresight he had in 2007.

That was the year that Bigfork High School football player Jeffrey Bowman (no relation to Troy Bowman) collapsed on the first day of practice and died a week later. He was 17.

Bowman's parents sued the school, alleging their son could have been saved had coaches used one of the defibrillators the school district owned, but which was not immediately on hand.

Since 1996, Troy Bowman has carried an AED with him to all athletic practices and events, but until 2008 it was the only defibrillator available to the Columbia Falls School District.

After the tragic death at Bigfork High School, Bowman had the idea to apply for seed money from the Flathead Electric Cooperative's "Roundup for Safety Program." Funds for the program come from Cooperative members who participate by allowing their monthly bills to be rounded up to the next dollar. The average cost for each participating member is $6 per year. Since the program's inception, more than $500,000 in grant money has been raised.

Columbia Falls School District Superintendent Michael Nicosia matched the cooperative's $2,600 grant, and Bowman purchased six additional defibrillators. There are now 10 defibrillators distributed throughout the Columbia Falls School District, and Nicosia authorized the purchase of four more AEDs following Brown's collapse.

"It's pennies that everyone is donating, but it adds up and goes toward great causes like this," Bowman said. "This one AED has paid for itself many times over. It's a miracle device. They need to be as common as payphones used to be."

Cole Brown's mother, Devie Brown, said she and her husband, Perry, are extremely grateful for Bowman and Dragonfly's response, as well as for their efforts in raising awareness for AEDs and promoting electrocardiogram test screenings for all students.

"Our son has a pre-existing condition that we were not aware of, and now we are," she said.

In October, a Park High cross-country runner collapsed during the State A meet in Missoula and died, and a sixth-grader recently collapsed from sudden cardiac arrest in the Columbia Falls community.

"That's now four people in a very short time who have had this problem and thankfully our high school staff has the CPR training and the tools necessary to help someone in distress before it's too late," she said.

Bowman and Dragonfly are both certified by the American Red Cross as CPR trainers, and said their training kicked in instantly after Brown's collapse.

But the AEDs are "essentially foolproof," Dragonfly said, and need to be on hand "in all public places."

"Our kids are worth it," she said.

The Brown family thanked Bowman, Dragonfly and other high school staffers who assisted their son -- with huckleberry pies and flowers, and gave them a painting of a grizzly bear.

An inscription on the painting reads: "To Troy Bowman, Cathy Dragonfly and the CFHS staff who were instrumental in saving the life of a student. You have the sincere gratitude of the Brown Family."

 

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