The headteacher who saved a four-year-old’s life by administering CPR when her heart stopped, says “it was three and a half minutes before she took a breath”.

Bill James, headteacher at St Joseph’s Primary, didn’t waste a minute when a member of staff ran out of her classroom carrying a small child.

Little Adela Zastreskova had collapsed on the floor in her class and started having a febrile convulsion.

Her reception class teacher picked her up and rushed her into the school’s reception area. At the time, the headteacher was in his office where he had been doing the school’s budget, when a teacher came in to tell him: “We’ve got a child outside that’s stopped breathing.”

Blue lips

Adela had suffered a condition that is quite common in children, with five in every 100 children having a febrile convulsion some time before their sixth birthday. While the school had seen other children have such convulsions, they had never had a pupil at the school stop breathing as a result.

In the seconds that passed, Mr James realised they must act quickly as the child’s heart had stopped. “There was no movement, nothing. She had blue lips. There was froth around her mouth.”

With 200 pre-schoolers (aged three months to five years) and 480 children in total at the school in Aldershot, all employees had done first aid training every two years, including Mr James.

'Someone is going to die here'

In his 20 years at the school he had attended 10 first aid sessions but had never had to use it in real life. “I had never done this before. My first instinct is someone is going to die here.”

Mr James started giving the four-year-old chest compressions and rescue breaths. Kelly Ralls, the school’s first aid lead counted out the compressions to keep him in rhythm.

“As I started, I was thinking ‘Don’t lose her! Don’t lose her’. Kelly was keeping me in time. Five breaths to 30 compressions. Then check for signs of breathing.”

Three and a half minutes passed.

“Staff were trying to talk to the girl, stroke her hand, they were saying ‘Come on Adela! Come on Adela!’”

Someone called 999. Another phoned her mother. Mr James felt time passing horribly as he continued giving chest compressions, waiting for signs of life. No sight was more reassuring to Mr James, than the sight of little Adela’s chest rising as she started to breathe for herself.

“As soon as I could see her chest rising, I knew breath was coming into her. That gave me the confidence. I was convinced, she was going to make it.”

The staff watched with relief as Adela began breathing on her own and put her into recovery position. Someone got her a blanket. Another put a pillow under her head. She was up and conscious by the time the paramedics arrived. Then her mother arrived.

“I was worried she’d have brain damage” says the headteacher.

“It was a delicate position because while I was giving CPR, someone phoned the child's mum to ask her to come to the school. We didn’t want to cause her to panic and crash the car. So Mum didn’t realise what had happened. On the phone she had been told: ‘Your daughter has fainted. Can you come in?’”

Adela was taken to hospital, spent the night there and made a full recovery. She was back at school the next day and had no clue about what had happened.

Back to the budget and lost cardigans

After the paramedics left, Mr James said “I just sat down and did my budget. In the office, we got a phone call about a lost school cardigan. We went from one extreme to the other. It was as if it had never happened.”

The next day, the headteacher phoned St John Ambulance to thank his school’s trainers. A febrile convulsion can usually occur between the ages of 18 months and three-years-old but it is not common for a child to stop breathing.

That morning, Adela had come into school hot. Her temperature then rapidly soared to 100 degrees. The staff members present after her collapse had only recently taken a St John Ambulance first aid refresher course.

St John Ambulance trainer, Jo Michaelides, said if a febrile convulsion does stop a child’s breathing: “You must move quickly into resuscitation – which is exactly what the school staff did. I am so pleased with them, they were amazing.”


Bill James and his team are among those nominated for a St John Ambulance award in the charity’s awards ceremony Everyday Heroes, taking place this September.

The charity’s chief executive Martin Houghton-Brown said: “We want to celebrate the brave actions and skill of people like headteacher Bill James and his staff, who stepped in without hesitation to make a real difference.

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