ALMANAC: Quick-thinking referee saves child

It was just an average Saturday at Lewis Park as Claremont resident Andy Dale refereed a coed American Youth Soccer Organization match. He’d just blown the whistle, signaling a water break, when he saw a nine-year-old boy on the sidelines with his hands around his throat—the universal sign that he was choking.

He would later recall that time stood still while things happened very fast, but what Mr. Dale did was to spring into action, giving the child the Heimlich maneuver and successfully dislodging a plastic bottle cap from his throat.

Leo Tessier was watching his older brother Victor play soccer on April 21, while messing around like nine-year-olds do. He grabbed a handful of cheese puffs and then went to take a drink from a plastic water bottle. Needing a third hand, he chose to balance the bottle’s cap on a finger and, as he drank, the cap slipped into his mouth. He panicked and the cap became lodged in his throat. He took several labored breaths, which just forced the cap further into his throat.

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, but even more so for Leo’s father Ed Tessier who is disabled and uses a wheelchair.

“Surreal panic,” is how Mr. Tessier described his initial reaction. “I have always had this fear, as a dad with a disability, that my kids would be in trouble someday and I wouldn’t be able to help out, and then for that to actually happen right in front of me . . .”

One of the players, Zina Alkhatib, recognized something was wrong and got everyone’s attention, and two team parents Mark Rodriguez and Filipe Negritto immediately started helping.

For a harrowing couple of minutes, Mr. Dale performed the Heimlich—placing his arms around Leo with one hand in a fist while making short sharp thrusts to the abdomen.

During a recent visit to the Claremont Village, Mr. Tessier described those tense minutes at the park.

“The one thing I do remember is that it seemed to take a long time. He took three pulls and [the cap] had still not come up. Andy looks at me and I said, ‘you have to keep on going.’ Andy gave it a really hard pull and that is what brought it out,”’ Mr. Tessier said.

Once the cap was dislodged, Leo spit it out and was rushed to Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center.

It doesn’t take very long for choking to turn into a real disaster. Serious brain damage can occur in approximately four minutes without oxygen, and it took nine minutes for the first responders to arrive, according to Mr. Tessier.

“The doctors at the hospital were unequivocal: ‘whoever did the Heimlich on your son saved his life,’” Mr. Tessier said.

As Mr. Dale recalled, “The funny thing is, people congratulate me for keeping a clear head and jumping into action, but quite frankly the whole thing went by in kind of a blur. It’s really important for people to realize that volunteering not only leads to good soccer but also resulted in a whole bunch of people being on the field who could help [in an emergency].”

The experience has made an impression on Leo even though he was shy about answering a reporter’s questions. Mr. Tessier noted that Leo has been pushing his school, Foothill Country Day, to ban plastic water bottles. They have ordered new water fountains where students can refill bottles they bring from home.

Mr. Dale has taken a number of first aid courses, but can’t remember when he learned the Heimlich, but everyone involved sure is glad he was prepared. “I would advise everybody to do some kind of [first aid] training,” he said.

Originally from Claremont, Mr. Dale moved away and returned three times. “We moved back in 2007 and so it looks like I am a lifer at this point,” he said.

“I played in AYSO on the same field where Leo and I met. As a matter of fact, I dug up a picture from my very first team and it was actually taken at the same park.”

Mr. Dale got back into AYSO 11 years ago when his son Joe stated playing soccer in the U6 league for children under the age of 6. Joe is now in U19, which is the same league that Mr. Dale was refereeing on April 21 in Lewis Park. 

“I kind of got into it by accident, but I became interested and started the training [to be a referee], and once you get into it, it’s hard to get out.” Mr. Dale said. “AYSO can use all the help it can get. It’s all based on volunteerism and it is a great organization that lets a lot of kids who would not otherwise play sports be active on a weekly basis and enjoy the game. So I just wanted to help enable that.”

In addition to his involvement in soccer, Mr. Dale is also a member of Claremont’s Sunrise Rotary Club and is a co-owner of Last Name Brewery in Upland.

At the June 26 Claremont City Council meeting, Mr. Dale received the city’s lifesaver award in front of a packed house. It was apparent that Mr. Dale was not entirely comfortable with the attention, but that he also recognized the significance of what had happened. As Leo and Mr. Tessier watched from the sidelines, Police Chief Shelly Vander Veen described the events of that day at Lewis Park. A group of friends and fellow volunteers with AYSO held signs with Mr. Dale’s mug shot and cheered loudly when Chief Vander Veen introduced him.

After posing for a few photos with the city council, the whole crowd filtered out to the courtyard where more people thanked Mr. Dale for his heroism. Still, as is his nature, he continued to give other people the credit.

“Andy plays down his heroism saying ‘anybody would have stepped in.’ But the fact is, there were 50 people there and everybody was very attentive and helpful but only one guy really took charge, and thank goodness he did.” Mr. Tessier said.


–Steven Felschundneff






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