A tragedy was avoided at Hamilton High School West when the school’s faculty and staff leapt into action to save a senior who collapsed suddenly in cardiac arrest.

Since the event on Jan. 10, Liam Simonelli, 17, has been welcomed back to school by his student peers, faculty and staff.

Hamilton High West senior Liam Simonelli (center) stands with art teacher Jayme Canavera and school nurse Kathleen Raney in the art room at the school Feb. 20, 2020. Simonelli is wearing sunglasses to protect his eyes after they were injured while he was in a medically induced coma following a cardiac episode during school Jan. 10. Staff at Hamilton West—including Canavera and Raney—acted quickly during the incident, saving the student’s life. (Staff photo by Nicole Viviano.)

“Liam had no symptoms, he had no history, he wasn’t doing drugs, he just literally collapsed out of the blue,” said Tara Simonelli, Liam’s mother. “There was nothing to predict that. And had Hamilton High West not had the AEDs and had the properly trained people I wouldn’t be talking to you now.”

A student told teacher Jayme Canavera that Simonelli had fallen off his chair and wasn’t sure if he was alright.

Just as he did everyday for school, Simonelli attended his second period AP Art Studio course, where he sat quietly at his desk and worked on an assignment. When what felt like a fainting spell swept over him, he at first thought nothing of it.

During the morning period, around 9:15 a.m., Jayme Canavera, Simonelli’s art teacher, was startled by a loud thud. A student next to Simonelli told her that Liam had fallen off his chair and wasn’t sure if he was alright.

Canavera found that the teen was unresponsive and gasping for air, which prompted her to call down for the nurse from the classroom phone. Seconds later, she sent a team of students to run to the nurse’s office as she began to realize the severity of the situation.

“This is my 12th year teaching and hands down one of the scariest days, not just in my teaching career, but of my life, just because we didn’t know what was wrong. We didn’t know what was going on,” Canavera said.

When nurse Kathleen Raney arrived in the room, she assessed the unconscious student and began CPR. Instructing the teacher to call the main office and call 911, Raney, a lifelong Hamilton resident and nurse of 42 years, expressed that time is the most important thing in a case like this.

“It was a very unfortunate situation, but it ended up with a very good result,” she said.

It was Raney’s timely and proper application of CPR that helped save Simonelli and prevent any neurological damage.

“Thanks to Nurse Kathleen Raney, because she did CPR correctly and consistently and continued until the paramedics were able to get him stabilized, he was able to get oxygen to his brain,” Tara Simonelli said. “Our son wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t continued.”

Once the call was placed to the main office for an ambulance, principal Brian Smith and the school resource officer, Hamilton Police Officer Anthony Carvale, reacted.

Smith cleared the one classroom and proceeded to put the school under a shelter-in-place drill, where everyone stays in their classrooms and the hallways remain clear, allowing emergency responders to access the building as quickly as possible.

Due to the quick and precise actions of Raney and Carvale, Simonelli was saved from a potentially fatal scenario.

Carvale has been an officer with Hamilton Police Division for nearly 10 years and started as an SRO at the high school at the beginning of the school year. He brought one of the school’s automated external defibrillators to the room and placed a call over his police radio to his department.

The officer administered one shock from the AED to set Simonelli’s heart back to a normal rhythm. The student’s pulse was still weak, and Raney continued CPR until paramedics from the Rusling Hose firehouse around the corner arrived on scene.

Due to the quick and precise actions of Raney and Carvale, Simonelli was saved from a potentially fatal scenario.

“I was in shock and awe…the poise and the composure they displayed under that extreme pressure and stress,” Smith said. “That’s something that you just never see.”

While paramedics worked to stabilize Simonelli before moving him to the ambulance, Canavera had placed a call to Liam’s mother via the student’s phone, when she noticed his phone was out and unlocked.

Upon arrival at the school, Tara Simonelli was met outside by her younger son, Leif, 15, who is a freshman at the high school. Simonelli was transported to Helene Fuld Crisis Outreach in Trenton, where he stayed for approximately two hours before being airlifted by a 25-minute helicopter ride to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. CHOP was better equipped to handle Simonelli at his age and in his condition.

The biggest concern for the student was neurological damage, which is why CHOP put Simonelli in a medically induced coma while keeping his body at a cooler temperature to help the brain repair itself. By Jan. 12, two days later, the hospital began to wake him up and monitor his responses.

Later that month, Simonelli had surgery to have a pacemaker/defibrillator placed in his chest in case of a similar situation occurring again.

Staff and students were equally eager to see Simonelli’s return to school, which came on Monday, Feb. 3.

Canavera said that when Simonelli came into her class for the first time since the incident, he tried to sneak in without anyone noticing. His peers didn’t let him get away that easily, as he received many cards and sentiments, including a “Welcome Back Liam” banner in his English class.

Simonelli expressed that he had some jitters coming back to school after what happened but has fallen back into the rhythm of things now.

Although he doesn’t recall much from the day he collapsed, Simonelli made sure to seek out his rescuers.

“I had the opportunity to talk with Officer Carvale and Nurse Raney and…mostly out of everything I wanted to express my gratitude because they saved my life, simply put,” Simonelli said. “It was incredible. It still is to me to think about it. It’s a bit bizarre to look at them and then think, ‘Without them I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be standing, looking at them.’”

Although Simonelli’s passion for art and drive to become a teacher haven’t changed, his experience has caused him to reflect on his future.

Out of all the times and places where this could have happened, Simonelli happened to collapse in his favorite class, Canavera’s AP Art Studio course.

“There are so many other things that could have gone terribly wrong, so we’re thankful that it happened to us, where it did, where we could at least try to help,” Canavera said.

The high school senior takes three art classes and strives to go into art education post-graduation. He’s involved in a school program called Tomorrow’s Teachers which acts a class and instructs students on what a teaching profession is like.

Although Simonelli’s passion for art and drive to become a teacher haven’t changed, his experience has caused him to reflect on his future.

“My thinking on teaching has been a little bit different, because before this happened I thought a lot about the obstacles of teaching and what I’ll encounter throughout my career but I never thought of something like a medical emergency like this happening,” Simonelli said.

Fortunately, his lifestyle won’t be greatly affected either. He was instructed by the hospital to avoid strenuous activity for a few months and to stay away from heavy machinery because of its possible effects on his pacemaker. Although the cause of Simonelli’s heart problem is still a mystery, everyone is happy to see him back at school full-time.

This freak occurrence has shown the high school and the Simonellis how important it is to have professionals trained in CPR and AED use. Raney explained that nurses are required to get recertified in CPR every two years. Carvale is trained and recertified in CPR and AED use annually.

Those classified as first responders at the school are required to have this training, Smith said. The school’s administrators and athletic team supervisors are also trained in these lifesaving techniques. HHW is set up well with eight AED devices on the school property currently. The school intends to order more AEDs as well.

“This is such a crazy thing that happened and for Nurse Raney and Officer Carvale to be on it instantly and saving his life and keeping him from having any neurological damage it’s just phenomenal,” Tara Simonelli said.

According to Smith, Hamilton Township School superintendent Scott Rocco intends to implement a plan to have all staff trained in CPR and first aid in the next five years.

“Mine is an incredibly fortunate and obviously lucky story,” Simonelli said. “I can only hope that it inspires more people to learn CPR, practice AEDs, schools especially, just to raise awareness.”