Michelle Feeley

Michelle Feeley, a Waseca resident who works in Owatonna as a nurse, was in the right place at the right time Wednesday night when she saved a toddler who was choking at the Minnesota Zoo. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

When Michelle Feeley is asked why she became a nurse, it’s not a dream of helping others or a passion for the sciences that guides her answer. It’s practical considerations — superior academic performance in related subject areas and the offer of a full ride from nursing school.

Feeley is a lot of things — a practicing Catholic, mother of 11 children, Waseca resident and nurse specializing in orthopedics in Owatonna, working as a nurse for two decades. What she isn’t, however, is a person who centers herself in the story of how she saved a child’s life Wednesday night in the parking lot of the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.

“It was God using us in that role to save this kid’s life,” she said flatly, like this was an obvious fact that didn’t need to be spelled out. “It was the plan.”

The fact that she and a physician happened to be in the vicinity when a young child’s mother was screaming for help, that she and the doctor were there to perform abdominal thrusts, also known as the Heimlich maneuver, while waiting for paramedics to arrive — all of it was just “way too coincidental” for it to have occurred randomly, she said.

Feeley’s family came to the Minnesota Zoo that night for the Jack-O’-Lantern Spectacular, a seasonal event featuring thousands of carved, lit-up pumpkins throughout the venue. They were running late — it takes time to get 11 kids into their 14-passenger van, she said. And because of the size of the car, her husband has to be purposeful about finding a spot when he’s driving. While getting into the parking lot, though, he missed his turn and they started going in the wrong direction. That’s when they saw her.

“She was screaming at the top of her lungs, ‘Help me, help me, help me, help me,’” Feeley said. She jumped out of the car and ran over to her. She was on the parking lot sidewalk. “I could see she was hunched over, but I couldn’t see who — it was pitch black.”

The mother told Feeley that her son had thrown up and speculated he’d had a seizure. He looked about three years old, Feeley said. The front of his shirt was covered in vomit. While Feeley was removing his shirt, a physician who happened to be nearby approached them and asked what was going on. Feeley said, “he’s choking.”

“There was no air exchange,” she said. “He had something stuck in his throat.”

After the physician called out for somebody to call 9-1-1, he and Feeley flipped him upside-down and began performing the Heimlich maneuver. The physician then laid him out on the ground to do rescue breathing.

“It was dim and I was very close to his face,” Feeley said. “You could tell the life was getting drained out of him.”

The boy’s mother and who Feeley assumed were his grandparents began screaming and crying. The boy still wasn’t breathing.

An object was eventually dislodged from the boy’s throat: a quarter-sized piece of chicken. They turned him on his side. He gasped for air. About five minutes after they were called, the paramedics arrived. Feeley realized the boy was breathing. She reached over to his mother and touched her leg, telling her it was going to be OK.

In the chaos of those few minutes, Feeley said she was so intently focused on the task of saving the child’s life that she did not take in her surroundings — how many people were around her or who was doing and saying what. She never learned the physician’s name or asked the mother for her contact information.

“In the moment I guess I just didn’t think about it,” she said. “I was just thinking about praying at first and just hoping the mom’s OK and the kiddo’s OK.”

After Feeley finished detailing the events to paramedics, and after the physician joked he needed a drink and walked off and the boy was taken away in an ambulance, she admitted wished she could have kept in touch with the mother. While she was fairly certain things turned out OK for him, she said she would still like to check in.

“To see him smiling and happy would be absolutely awesome,” she said.

Hands covered in vomit, Feeley picked herself up and went to find her family. They went straight to the Jack-O’-Lantern Spectacular.

“I can see how for some people that might not be a very easy transition but it’s what I do on a daily basis,” she said.

She’s been a nurse for 20 years, she explained — this wasn’t the first time she’s performed the Heimlich maneuver or been called to help strangers who have hit their head or passed out in public.

“I kind of go back into my mode when I transition from work to home,” she said. “There isn’t really time to digest that, just continue on.”

She and her husband hadn’t gotten their 11 kids into the van that night and driven over to Apple Valley for nothing, after all.

“It was great,” she said about the zoo. “We had a great time.”

Reach Reporter Julian Hast at 507-333-3133. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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