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Mother credits school defibrillator and staff with saving her life

HUDSON — Open house at Northwest Elementary School had all but ended.

A couple of parents milled about in the hallways. Teachers were shutting down their classrooms. And Rhonda Smith, who came to the school that September evening to recruit Cub Scouts to her troop, was packing up materials.

Then Smith collapsed.

Two friends — J.R. and Tracy Hatfield — realized Smith, a 47-year-old mother of three, had experienced a heart attack. They began CPR and called the school's staff into action.

"We did what my registered nurse trained us to do," principal Tracy Graziaplene recalled.

They grabbed the school's automatic external defibrillator, made sure someone had contacted 911, and got to work.

"That wonderful machine started talking to us," Graziaplene said, referring to the AED's robotic instructions. "It has everything there."

Northwest was the first elementary school in Pasco County to get a defibrillator, about a year earlier. Last fall, it became the first Pasco school to record a "save" using one.

"People were on campus ready to respond," district nursing supervisor Lisa Kern said. "It was a wonderful thing."

After four months of recovery, Smith visited the School Board on Tuesday to offer her thanks.

"Without that machine in the school, I wouldn't have even been alive to get into the ambulance," Smith, who "coded" at least seven times on the way to the hospital, said after the meeting. "I'm grateful for the taxpayers paying their taxes … to keep (the defibrillators) up to do the job. I'm so grateful for everyone."

With the help of a federal grant, the Pasco school district is placing at least one defibrillator in every school, plus in several district buildings. They cost $1,000 to $1,500 each.

The district separately covers the cost of training employees to use the machines, and to maintain them regularly.

Smith, who now has an internal defibrillator, says the district expense is worth it if it saves another life.

"You've got to think of the budget cuts. I deal with budget cuts with my own kids," she said. "I know there's people out there who don't feel the AED's are necessary. … But what is a life worth? It's like love, it's unconditional."

Given a new lease on her life, Smith said she intends to pay it forward. By no means a wealthy woman, she plans to do so with her time and energy, working with people who have handicaps.

"I think that's why God put me here on this earth," she said, listing among her projects the creation of a "special needs" Girl Scout troop.

Smith also works as a personal care assistant and supports her 13-year-old daughter, Katelynn, who's a special needs cheerleader and Special Olympics athlete. She has been spending more time with her husband, Dwight, and their sons Alvin and Matthew.

And she has a new, less stressful outlook on the world.

"I'm closer to God. I'm closer to my children. I'm closer to my husband. I'm closer to the beauty of life," Smith said. "I'm just happy to be alive."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at