DALLAS — Choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the U.S. In 2020, there were 4,963 deaths reported due to choking according to the National Safety Council.
Just a few months ago, Maribel Zepeda choked on honey as she sipped tea. It was one of the scariest moments she recalls.
“My granddaughter was next to me, and I couldn’t speak,” Zepeda said in Spanish. “You feel like you’re going to die.”
She tried to get her granddaughter’s attention but, unable to speak, Zepeda looked at her with fear in her eyes. The grandmother survived, but the incident changed her life.
Zepeda has worked as a custodian for Birdville Independent School District for 20 years and was hired as head custodian for North Oaks Middle School, seven years ago.
“I like for the teachers to be happy with my work,” Zepeda said, “we keep the rooms clean and tend to the kids.”
With decades of experience, Zepeda is speedy at her job. She can clean a classroom in 10 minutes or less, but her job duties go beyond cleaning but also maintenance.
“We do everything,” Zepeda joked.
She never thought that one day she would save a student’s life. In early October, Zepeda was on her way to a meeting when she went by the cafeteria. It’s where she saw Jamal Taylor gasping for air.
The 11-year-old had been laughing and joking with his friends at the lunch table. He said his friend made a "really good joke."
“When I was chewing the chicken nugget, I think inhaled some of the meat and so I started choking,” Taylor said.
Zepeda who had given no one the Heimlich maneuver before, believes her own experience helped her recognize Taylor was choking.
“I saw him I [his face] as if he was choking and, in that moment, you can’t speak or do anything,” Zepeda said.
The custodian jumped into action, applying pressure to his stomach to dislodge the piece of meat stuck in his throat.
“I’m super glad and thankful that she helped me,” Taylor said.
Principal Jennifer Klaerner says in each hallway of the school at least one person is CPR certified and trained in the Heimlich maneuver. All administrative staff and coaches are also trained.
“Maribel was at the back of the cafeteria and noticed it instantly and before any of us could make it to the back of the cafeteria, she had already gotten to him,” said Klaerner.
The district and school recognized Maribel’s heroic actions following the incident.