First-grader Bowen Johnson is back at school with an implanted heart defibrillator two weeks after a teacher saved his life.
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The 7-year-old’s heart stopped during physical education on April 11 at Western Heights Elementary in Lake Charles.
“He was running around outside, playing with his friends for just about two minutes before he headed to the slide,” said Ken Flue, the school’s adapted physical education teacher for Western Heights. “He stepped on to the first step on the plastic playground and immediately collapsed.”
Flue moved the boy into the shade. Bowen had a faint pulse and was barely breathing. Then he stopped. Flue began rescue breathing and CPR while special-education aide April Jones ran to tell the front office to call 911.
Secretary Rhonda Cortez called on her cellphone while running to the playground, so she could relay instructions. Flue kept Bowen breathing for 10 minutes, until an ambulance arrived.
The school had also called Bowen’s parents, Steve and Eva Johnson, who arrived shortly before the ambulance.
“I was in shock. To see our son lying on the ground unconscious, he wasn’t breathing,” said Eva Johnson. “It was hard. It’s not something you see with children.”
Emergency medical technicians used a defibrillator to restart Bowen’s heart. Without Flue, he might have died before they arrived, they said.
“Everything worked just right. Everything was real surreal. When they put the paddles on him, I couldn’t watch that part,” Flue said. “He’s a very special kid, and it was definitely a God thing.”
Bowen was taken to Christus St. Patrick Hospital, then flown to Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, where doctors implanted a defibrillator in his chest. It was the 21st operation for Bowen, who was diagnosed two years ago with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — a condition that causes the heart muscle to become abnormally thick, making it difficult for the organ to pump blood — and was badly burned in a house fire in October 2008.
After the fire, doctors gave him a 2 percent chance of survival. It was three months before he had recovered enough at a local hospital to be moved to a burn center in Cincinnati.
“He had to spend 3 1/2 months completely immobile. Then he went through all of the grafts and had to relearn how to walk, how to feed himself, to do anything on his own,” Johnson said. “He never stopped. Even when I knew it hurt him, he didn’t stop.”
Johnson attributes Bowen’s amazing recovery to his resilient spirit and fun personality. Bowen was able to return home in 2008, but must return to the burn center about twice a year for checkups and new skin grafts.
He has so much scar tissue in his left shoulder that doctors had to put the defibrillator farther away from his heart, in his right shoulder.
“He was in surgery for 5 1/2 hours while they tried to find a place and then tested to make sure it worked,” Johnson said.
For the first responders at Western Heights, having Bowen back at school is “nothing short of a miracle.”
“I’m so glad to see him. I’m glad he’s back,” Jones said. “He’s running around like nothing ever happened.”
“Bowen is probably one of the coolest kids I’ve ever met,” Flue said. “No matter what happens he just bounces right back. He’s just amazing.”
Bowen’s entire class welcomed him back, but it was his two best friends and “special helper” classmates who missed him and worried about him the most.
“I really missed him. I was worried because he was in surgery,” said Isabella Young, who helps Bowen write and hold his school supplies. “When he came back he said he had stitches in his arm so I’m even more worried about that.”
“It’s good he is back,” said Brylie Fontenot. “Today I helped him get his tray at lunch.”
Energetic as always, Bowen spent his first day back at school running around with his friends, playing his favorite “SuccessMaker” computer game, and watching an episode of “The Magic School Bus.”
“I’m happy I’m back, but now I have homework,” Bowen sighed.