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How to save a life

Raya Kaplan, an emergency room technician on co-op at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, saved the life of a patient who was choking on a turkey sandwich. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Raya Kaplan was making the rounds in the emergency room of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center when she spotted a patient whose face was quickly turning blue.

His hands were haloing his throat, the universal signal for choking.  

The closest nurse was at the other end of the hallway, and every second counted. Kaplan, an emergency room technician on co-op from Northeastern, didn’t waste any time.

She signaled for the nurses and ER doctors, then ran into the room, vaulted the bedrails, and applied the basic life support training she’d learned in Northeastern’s nursing program to dislodge a too-big bite of turkey sandwich from the man’s throat. It went sailing across the room after two solid abdominal thrusts by Kaplan. The whole thing took mere seconds.

Doctors and nurses rushed in and congratulated Kaplan on her life-saving composure and quick-thinking.

Adrenaline pumping and a little dazed, Kaplan climbed off the bed and thought, “‘What just happened?’” she recalled. “It was one of those moments where I was just acting on my training.”

In fact, it was a combination of her athleticism as a former gymnast, medical training, and quick-thinking she’s developed as an Air Force ROTC cadet that enabled her to spring so quickly into action to save this man’s life.

“It was a crazy situation, but it’s just sort of my job,” she said. “There are nurses and doctors in the ER who save lives every single day. What’s so cool is I get to help them. It’s an honor to be part of that.”

Kaplan has always been interested in how she fits into the world, how the world fits together. She’s also pretty familiar with the inside of an ER.

She described a childhood of climbing trees barefoot and falling time and time again during gymnastics—activities that sent her to the hospital for relatively minor sprains and bumps five different times.

“I definitely wasn’t trying to go to the hospital,” Kaplan said, laughing, “but I did kind of really love seeing all the medicine taking place, seeing everyone busy with their job.”

When Kaplan was 10, her mother, Tara, enrolled in nursing school to start a second career. Seeing her mom succeed is a motivating factor for Kaplan’s own nursing studies even now.

“When it’s finals time, and I’ve been sitting in Snell [Library] for hours, I think about how my mom did this with three kids, and a house, and another job, and I just really can’t complain,” Kaplan said.

When she was 14, Kaplan’s family moved to India where Kaplan’s father, Larry, took a university teaching position. Tara worked at the local hospital, and Kaplan would occasionally shadow her. It was an opportunity that only deepened Kaplan’s interest in the health care field.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Now about to enter her fourth year in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences nursing program, Kaplan’s gotten her own taste of the work. Her first co-op was in an oncology floor at Beth Israel, but Kaplan knew she wanted to get to the ER, where the staff worked together in an intricate, urgent dance to save lives.

“In the ER, you can see how it all works. The interns, residents, and attendings all have their own jobs and you can see how it all fits together,” she said.

As with nursing, Kaplan’s interest in the military also has deep family roots. Both her grandfathers were enlisted, she said, and her family would often take trips to visit the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado when they were in the state visiting her grandmother.

So, she joined the Air Force ROTC in college—a happy medium between having “a real college experience” and the military experience she also craved, Kaplan said.

Kaplan is training to become a flight nurse. Now one of the more senior members of the program based at Boston University’s campus, she also has the opportunity to encourage younger members.

“I want to show people that there’s no one way someone in the Air Force has to look or act,” she said. “I joke that I was raised by hippies. My dad used to have hair down to his butt. My mom still does. They both have tattoos. My mom makes amazing granola and my dad has been on this kick where he’s been making his own yogurt lately—and it’s actually really good yogurt. You can be in the military and be yourself.”

The Air Force also gives her nursing work a bigger purpose. “These are people who are putting their lives on the line every day,” Kaplan said. “I want them to know that if they get injured, they’ll have the best people to help them. I want to be the best.”

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