Officer hailed as hero after coming to student’s rescue

Only days from turning 12, Gemini Elementary School sixth-grader Gwen Freeman thought she might not make it.

Unable to breathe, and a commotion growing around her, Freeman’s eyes closed as she lost consciousness. She would later learn that not all heroes wear capes. Some wear badges.

Thanks to School Resource Officer Alex Vila, Freeman was indeed able to celebrate another birthday.

On Jan. 29, while eating lunch in the school cafeteria, food became lodged in Freeman’s throat.

“I couldn’t talk, and I started trying to get it out,” Freeman said, “At first no one noticed but then my friend asked me if I was OK, I couldn’t respond so they called the principal over.”

Principal Jennifer Julian immediately ran over to help. Officer Vila, who happened to be in the cafeteria at that moment, noticed the commotion, and came over to assist.

“I asked if she was choking and she nodded so I administered the Heimlich,” Vila said. “She then passed out. I continued the Heimlich and she threw up, releasing the obstruction.”

Brevard County Fire Rescue arrived on scene and checked on Freeman, but she was already laughing and talking with friends. They also congratulated Vila for saving her life.

This is Vila’s first year as Gemini’s SRO. Before this, he’s never had to perform the Heimlich on a choking victim, but said officers are routinely trained and retrained on lifesaving techniques like CPR and the Heimlich to keep their skills sharp. “I’m so grateful he was there,” Freeman said.

Her father, Trip Freeman, said he’s extremely grateful as well.

“I’m very thankful for Principal Julian and to Officer Vila for saving my daughter from chocking,” Freeman said. “This is a perfect example of why we chose Gemini Elementary.”

With only a slight sore throat after the incident, she was able to go back to eating lunch with her friends and finish out the school day. “I happened to be at the right place at the right time and I’m so glad she’s OK,” Vila said. “I don’t consider myself a hero; it was my job.”

But Julian doesn’t see it that way and said that as far as she’s concerned Vila is more than an SRO, he is a hero.

“This was exemplified as Officer Alex jumped into action to save the life of a child. Officer Alex continues to build a positive rapport with teachers, students and families while ensuring the safety and security of all,” Julian said. “We are fortunate to have an outstanding partnership with the Melbourne Beach Police Department and an SRO that is caring and highly qualified.”

In the days that followed, Julian wrote a letter of appreciation to Melbourne Beach Police Chief Melanie Griswold, who responded with pride.

“I am so proud of the actions he took to save the life of that student when she was choking,” Griswold said. “He did exactly what he was trained to do, and I am happy she has made a full recovery.”

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