Saving Hearts and Lives

On a mild Monday evening, 20-year Frisco resident Sheila Elliott welcomes seven strangers into her home for a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), automated external defibrillator (AED) and First Aid course. As each student arrives, she leads them from the entryway to a small, cozy makeshift classroom, in which a dozen or so folding chairs line the walls. Under each of these chairs lies a blue CPR dummy and an American Heart Association CPR and First Aid guidebook. This room is where Mrs. Elliott, the emergency medical technician (EMT) coordinator at El Centro College in downtown Dallas, through her iSaveLives company, teaches these life-saving classes to anyone interested. 

Students take their seats and greet each other as they wait for class to begin. Mrs. Elliott moves to the front of the “classroom” once the last student finds a seat. She welcomes them all to her home with genuine warmth and enthusiasm, and it is easy to see her happiness at these people’s decision to become CPR certified tonight. She then shares with the class the story behind iSaveLives.

Thirteen years ago, when she was 16 weeks pregnant, Mrs. Elliott was told that one of the twins she was carrying had a heart defect, and that his heart was not developing properly. By 38 weeks, the babies had to be delivered, and the same twin, Colby, was born with only half a heart. This defect is hypoplastic left heart syndrome, and it means that he was born without his left ventricle, which pumps oxygen-rich blood to the body. Colby was given a 50 percent chance of surviving this defect, and by the age of two and a half, he had undergone five open heart surgeries. Now, Colby is alive and well and surviving on that 50 percent chance, with 50 percent of a heart, thanks to the doctors’ efforts. They “re-plumbed” his heart to let the right side do what the left side normally would. “We have always said he may have half a heart, but he lives his life with a whole heart,” Mrs. Elliott says with a smile.

On the CareFlite from Frisco to Houston for her son’s fourth surgery, one of the paramedics on the plane suggested Mrs. Elliott switch her career to the medical field, since a lot of her life was going to consist of looking after a son with such a serious condition. So, she gave up her job as an elementary school music teacher to become an EMT. She later became a paramedic. Since 2007, she has taught the importance of proper CPR and organ donation. Even if a patient is no longer alive, CPR can still save their organs, which can, in turn, save another eight lives — eight people who need transplants. As the mother of a son who will eventually need a heart transplant, Mrs. Elliott has remained strongly motivated and inspired to teach proper CPR to anyone and everyone, and has done so since switching her career path.

Last January, Mrs. Elliott started iSaveLives to continue teaching people these skills on her own. She offers health care classes specifically designed for people studying or working in the medical field, along with her non-health care classes. When she started her company, she bought all the necessary equipment herself and started from the ground up. She has three partners, also paramedics, who help her teach classes, not only from their own homes, but also in larger and more public settings. The whole setup is portable, and they travel to businesses to teach classes and certify employees who work there. All this is in effort to teach people the importance of being prepared in case of an emergency, so that anyone can be ready to save lives. 

After sharing her story, Mrs. Elliott asked each student who they are and why exactly they came that night. Two personal trainers needed to maintain their CPR certification, which is a requirement of their occupation. One Girl Scout troop leader must become certified, but also wants to do so for her own peace of mind. Another woman admitted she just wants to know how to save lives, in case she ever needs to, and one man had recently been saved by CPR, so he knows firsthand the importance of being certified.

Testimonies like these motivate Mrs. Elliott to continue with her work, and they make her feel she is doing what she is meant to in equipping people with life-saving tools.

Mrs. Elliott teaches how to properly perform compressions, give breaths, use an AED and take care of various injuries. Two hours later, the classmates tuck brand new CPR and First Aid certification cards into their wallets and pockets. The students leave, feeling reassured and confident knowing they now have the power to help and possibly save a life in an emergency. 

After the class, Mrs. Elliott expresses her long-term goal of growth for iSavesLives, enough to allow for a move into a separate facility so she no longer has to teach out of her home. She hopes this move will happen in the next year or so. When it does, she still wants to keep classes small, no more than eight to 10 people. This allows everyone in the class to leave feeling well-informed and confident. “I want to keep the classes affordable so more people can come. To me, it is not about the money. It is about encouraging people to become informed.” 

Frisco seems to be just the place for the Elliotts to have settled in, considering some of its recent history. In 2011, a sixth-grader was resuscitated with CPR and the use of an AED in her school hallway at Maus Middle School, after she collapsed due to a heart arrhythmia. “I think Frisco is great, and it has always been such a special place for us,” Mrs. Elliott says. “I really commend the city for embracing that situation and deciding they are going to teach every sixth-grader how to do CPR from now on. This inspiring turn of events is so closely aligned with the purpose of Mrs. Elliott’s business of making sure as many people as possible have the power to save lives. It is as if she was always meant to call Frisco her home. By teaching people these important skills and knowledge, she makes citizens safer and more empowered every day.