TAMPA — Not everybody gets a second chance.
Charlie Curtis knew that after he collapsed while running the mile in gym class at Plant High School.
He's known it in the three years since, while spreading the word about the importance of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
He knows it even more this week, as the Class of 2017 prepares to graduate while mourning the recent deaths of two of its members, Katie Golden and Bella Galan-Valdes.
Principal Robert Nelson said he could not discuss the circumstances of the deaths, which occurred on April 18 and May 5 respectively. But "both kids were wonderful, sweet and caring young ladies," he said.
They were mentioned at the past week's baccalaureate ceremony and will be remembered at Plant's May 19 graduation.
"Everyone's heart's out for those families," said Curtis, 18. "It really hits home. It's just really, really intense that my story came out okay, but so horrible that it didn't for them."
On Friday, as he revisited the outdoor track where he had his close call. Curtis remembered feeling dizzy in the last lap of a run that he had tried to finish in first place.
He slowed to a walking pace. Friends asked if he was all right. He waved them off. He dropped to one knee. They asked again if he was all right. He gave a two-thumbs up sign. "Then I passed out on the ground."
A team of school officials and police worked on Curtis for 15 minutes until rescue workers arrived. Everyone knew CPR. The school had an automated external defibrillator. "The machine actually hooks up to you, tells you everything to do," Curtis said. "It was really just perfect, perfect timing."
He learned he had a genetic heart condition that could be treated with medication and a pacemaker-defibrillator.
Today he avoids overly strenuous exercise, especially on a hot day. His father and sister run marathons, but, Curtis said, "I really don't like running that much anyway." He prefers sailing and spearfishing.
He counts his blessings.
"Getting up in the mornings is not so bad when you can get up in the morning and go to school," he said.
He learned from his advocacy work with the American Heart Association that most people who experience what he did either die, or emerge with brain damage that requires extensive rehabilitation.
Curtis is headed to the University of Florida, where he will study business.
He and his girlfriend founded a World Health and Treatment club at Plant High that educates students on health issues and emergency techniques.
They've seen advances, in three short years. Defibrillators are more commonly found in schools and gyms. CPR is now part of the health class curriculum throughout Hillsborough and some other districts as well.
"Everyone in my family knows CPR," Curtis said. "And all of my friends do, too. It's pretty much become a part of my life to advocate for CPR, because it's so easy to know and so easy to save a life.
"And that's what saved mine."
Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol