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Vernon Hills CSO was at the right place at right time to save choking victim


Vernon Hills resident Gerald Niskanen has helped uncounted people over his nearly 40 years interacting with the public in his various roles, but sometimes the call for assistance rises to another level.

On a Saturday in mid-December, he was working as a security officer at Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills when a call came in about someone choking at a restaurant.

Niskanen was first on the scene and arrived to find an elderly woman in a wheelchair choking and struggling for air.

“You know you’ve got to react and you don’t have a lot of time,” Niskanen said. “Any medical situation can be serious. We want to respond right away and see what’s needed.”

According to an account submitted to Vernon Hills police, a restaurant patron had tried sweeping the woman’s mouth with her fingers to remove the obstruction but was unsuccessful. Niskanen tried the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge the food, but the first attempt was unsuccessful.

“She was in a wheelchair — when they’re sitting down that low, it’s hard to do,” he said.

Someone who was with the woman lifted her out of the chair and Niskanen tried again. After three abdominal thrusts, a large piece of chicken was freed and the woman was able to breathe.

“You don’t want to think of the outcome if it doesn’t work,” Niskanen said. “I just tried to do my job.”

The mall employs about 20 security offices and all are trained and certified in CPR and first aid. Brianna Pankow, assistant director of mall security and the training instructor, said this was the first call of its type in her four years at Hawthorn.

“By the time I even got there (Niskanen) had it under control. The store called us freaking out,” she said. “Without him, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Niskanen has worked at Hawthorn nearly since it opened and will be marking his 40th year there in August.

Since March 1984, his full-time job has been as a Community Service Officer with the Vernon Hills Police Department.

Police Chief Patrick Kreis in late January presented Niskanen with the department’s Lifesaving Award for his actions at Hawthorn.

“They’re not sworn police officers arresting people but they can do a lot,” Kreis said of community service officers like Niskanen. “They’re an essential part of the team.”

Community service officers perform a variety of actions such as parking enforcement, assisting with accidents and responding to “quality of life requests,” Kreis said. They are trained in first aid and lifesaving techniques, such as using an automatic external defibrillators and administering Narcan to reverse the effects of opioid overdose, he added.

“It’s always extraordinary when somebody can be at the right place at the right time to make a difference,” Kreis said. “It wasn’t one and done, it took several attempts.”

It wasn’t Niskanen’s first save. He also received the department’s Lifesaving Award in 1996 after using the Heimlich to save a 10-year old boy who was choking on Jawbreakers candy at a local store.

“They rolled on the floor like marbles,” he said.

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