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Pine River-Backus School District: School liaison officer helps choking student

On May 4, Pine River police officer Ty VanHeerden was about to leave the Pine River-Backus School cafeteria at the end of his shift there as school liaison officer.

Pine River Police officer and liaison to the Pine River-Backus School Ty VanHeerden monitors different sections of the school, including the cafeteria. His presence during lunch time May 4 put him in a position to save a student from choking. Photo by Travis Grimler
Pine River Police officer and liaison to the Pine River-Backus School Ty VanHeerden monitors different sections of the school, including the cafeteria. His presence during lunch time May 4 put him in a position to save a student from choking. Photo by Travis Grimler

On May 4, Pine River police officer Ty VanHeerden was about to leave the Pine River-Backus School cafeteria at the end of his shift there as school liaison officer.

"I do two 30-minute lunch shifts where I watch the kids," VanHeerden said. "Normally Mr. Langemo (high school principal), Mr. Mongan (dean of students) and myself watch the kids. Then Mr. Langemo and Mr. Mongan will go watch the hallways and I'll stay behind until it is pretty much emptied out."

Though the cafeteria was mostly empty, he decided to wait a little longer.

"As I was standing there I was watching the tables and then I saw Nathan (Shetka)," VanHeerden said. "He had just put his hands to his throat. I thought, 'This is odd. This is not normal for Nathan.' I could see he had quite a bit of food wedged in his mouth."

Cafeteria surveillance video shows that in less than 20 seconds from the moment Shetka began choking, VanHeerden performed the Heimlich maneuver on him and dislodged the chicken nugget caught in his throat.

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Shetka took it easy for a while and drank some water to clear his throat. After a quick checkup by other first aid trained school employees and the nurse, Shetka was able to finish lunch and return to class.

"I heard about it when Nathan stopped by my office after lunch," said Mike Shetka, Nathan's father and a school employee. "I didn't think much of it at first, because he explained it like it was just an ordinary thing ... like he just swallowed wrong and coughed, like we all sometimes do.

"It wasn't until someone stopped by and told me they had heard there was a Red Team call at lunch for Nathan that I really understood something had taken place," Shetka said. "I then sought out the school nurse, who told me that it was all over with by the time the Red Team got there, thanks to Ty. So I went to find Ty, and he told me the story from his point of view. Then I requested the video footage, so I could see what happened. His response time was amazing!"

VanHeerden said the quick response may have contributed to the effectiveness of the maneuver.

"It helped immediately," VanHeerden said. "I think because it was just happening, it didn't wedge down as far. I'm happy I was right there, because I think if I wasn't there it may have wedged down further, and I think it would have been more effort to get it out."

VanHeerden said this was the first time he has had this sort of call for help. He sometimes responds to local medical calls; however, those calls usually also include an ambulance crew.

"It feels good," VanHeerden said. "I'm glad for the training we get. With our department we do a lot of training, and I think it paid off."

In keeping with the unofficial May 4 Star Wars Day, Nathan Shetka told his father, "The force was not with me that day."

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The Shetkas gave VanHeerden a Dairy Queen gift card as thanks, and the officer was honored at the May school board meeting.

"I told them (the school board), that as far as I was concerned, this one act was worth the entire liaison program," Shetka's father said. "Of course, I'm biased."

VanHeerden or other police officers have been a regular installment at the school since the early 2000s. Though they respond to any security or safety concerns, their responsibilities go further than that. A big part of the liaison position is interacting with students.

"There is quite a bit," VanHeerden said. "Our role is pretty big at the school. A lot of times we go to the elementary and read with the Head Start kids. It just shows the kids we aren't bad people."

The Pine River Police Department works hard to relate to younger locals, partially in response to a common threat of jail used by parents to make children behave. Part of the liaison position is to show students that officers are there to help.

VanHeerden's response to an emergency situation was proof of that.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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