'I am so lucky that Sarah Jane was marking me... I was unconscious for 26 minutes' - teacher on the day her rival on the pitch saved her life
When Michelle Herbert had a heart attack on the GAA pitch, the woman marking her kept her alive. Now the Limerick teacher is leading a drive to train school kids and staff in CPR, writes Ciona Foley
The pupils at Hazelwood College secondary school in Limerick are putting their books away today to take part in health-related activities. The Dromcollogher school has a very special reason for picking that date.
Two years ago today, their chemistry and agricultural science teacher Michelle Herbert had a massive heart attack.
She was 32 at the time, a fit woman with no pre-existing cardiac condition, who played team sport and had also completed the 180km Ring of Kerry cycle that summer.
But she collapsed while playing for Newcastlewest in the Limerick Junior Camogie Final and the woman who was marking her - Tournafulla's Sarah Jane Joy - literally saved her life.
Sarah Jane, an ex-Kerry senior footballer, is a nurse. So when Michelle suddenly collapsed five minutes after half-time, Joy's quick reactions - putting her into the recovery position, removing her helmet and immediately starting compressions - were vital to saving her life.
That's why the Limerick schoolteacher is now such a passionate advocate for CPR training and why her school is now devoting a whole day to what they're calling 'Celebrating Us'.
Their chief aim is to train everyone on the premises to do CPR, but pupils and teachers alike will also do other activities like yoga, Pilates and mindfulness, be given healthy snacks and drinks and enjoy a special BBQ for lunch.
According to the Irish Heart Foundation, beginning CPR immediately after a heart attack actually doubles the person's chance of survival and Michelle has no doubt that Joy's presence of mind and quick actions - both physical and verbal - saved her life two years ago.
"I am so lucky that Sarah Jane was marking me - without her, I would not have survived," says Michelle. "I suffered a massive heart attack, got between six to eight defibrillator shocks and 11 to 12 rounds of compression and was airlifted to Limerick University Hospital.
"I was unconscious for 26 minutes and they really didn't know if I was going to survive. It was touch-and-go, and only for the people around me, I would not have survived."
She remains grateful to the many people who helped on that fateful day and also that the venue, Feohanagh-Castlemahon GAA club, had a working defibrillator which two local men rushed to get.
But she has Sarah Jane, in particular, to thank for her life.
"It was a crazy situation and Sarah Jane took control of it. She had four rounds of compression done by the time the defibrillator arrived and it was those four rounds that made sure I had enough oxygen levels to survive and wasn't brain damaged. That was the key to my survival and full recovery.
"When the defibrillator arrived, she was not only working on me, but had space cleared and made sure everyone in the crowd was quiet so they could hear what the defibrillator was telling them because it gives you instructions. I've been told you could hear a pin drop."
Michelle's partner (now husband) Jer and her mother were by her side and she says that Sarah Jane urging them to keep continuously talking to her was also vital.
"There was definitely someone above looking out for me that day," she says.
"They had six to eight rounds of compressions done and next thing the defibrillator said 'check the batteries'.
"They all looked at each other because it looked like the battery was gone and then I just came around."
She was hospitalised for three weeks, still has a loop recorder in her heart which sends information to the hospital and remains on some medication. Her body felt the painful effects of the compression and defibrillator shocks for nearly three months afterwards and she couldn't return to work for five months.
But that was a small price to pay for her life and she is now, understandably, a passionate advocate for CPR training, especially in schools.
"We're pioneering this initiative and our principal Brendan Burke has really got behind it," says Michelle. "It only takes an hour to teach CPR to a class so we will be sending out 600 people (550 pupils and 50 staff) who are trained to do it on one day.
"We also have 60 guest speakers and instructors coming in to cover a range of topics. We want every student and teacher going home not just competent in CPR, but also positive and energised and with a new appreciation for life because everyone now knows the link between physical and mental health.
"A good few principals from other schools have asked if they can send a teacher to see how we're running this, so hopefully they will do something similar in their schools."
Back in May, the school already acted as Munster host for the Irish Heart Foundation's 'CPR 4 Schools' programme.
"It's a two-hour session that trains teachers who can then train people in their school. You get a kit to help you and it's so simple," adds Michelle.
"We had 80 teachers from 25 schools, which was brilliant, but also a little disappointing because we sent out 100 letters. We only got replies from 25 schools and had none from Kerry. There is the potential to train so many more."
Herbert is no longer playing competitive camogie, but is now coaching the club's U16s. She also goes to the gym and recently signed up for the 110km Ring of Beara cycle.
She and Jer got married in July and their four-year-old son Conor is coming into the school for this special event, which will feature many guest speakers and sporting role models like former Kilkenny hurler Michael Fennelly, Olympics runner Jessie Barr, Clare hurlers Podge Collins and Tony Griffin, plus several members of the Limerick hurling and junior ladies' football team who are bringing along their newly-won All-Ireland trophies.
Back in December 2016, Michelle arranged a special thanksgiving mass in Limerick to show her gratitude to the many people who helped her and her family on that terrifying day in Coolyroe.
Sarah Jane read the first reading, her own team captain did the second and the match referee was even involved by reciting the Prayers of the Faithful.
Two years later, Michelle has translated her gratitude into something really practical; getting teenagers and adults trained in CPR and using the secondary school system to spread that gospel across the nation.
And it is no surprise to discover that, on Hazelwood College's special 'Celebrating Us' day, the person who will be giving the opening address is Sarah Jane; the woman who, two years ago, went out to mark Michelle in a camogie final and ended up saving her life.
What is CPR?
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is an emergency procedure used on someone who is in cardiac arrest or a heart attack. It involves chest compressions, often with artificial ventilation, in an effort to manually preserve intact brain function until further measures are taken to restore spontaneous blood circulation and breathing.
What is CPR 4 Schools?
It is a short training programme run by the Irish Heart Foundation in the form of a two-hour workshop which trains teachers in the skills they need to teach students and staff CPR in just 40 minutes. This means schools can run CPR training in their own time in the regular time-table. Worldwide 'Restart a Heart' day falls on Tuesday, October 16, with the aim of highlighting the fact that anyone can learn CPR.