Sue Denis, who is retiring this year after teaching Pierson High School students CPR for the past 28 years, remembers vividly the day when she first realized how important the skill was.
“It was September 17, 1979, the first day of scallop season,” she recalled. Ms. Denis, who was recuperating from back surgery at her parents’ home in North Haven at the time, thought it odd that the boat belonging to her father, Joseph Remkus, was still in the driveway, because he had been expected to be out on the water. When she went out to investigate, she found him lying unconscious behind the boat.
“I tried to resuscitate him but I couldn’t save him,” said Ms. Denis, who, although she was a Registered Nurse, had not been trained in CPR.
Fourteen years later, after a career in the intensive care unit at White Plains Hospital and another decade working with Greenwich Health Examiners and Greenwich Youth Options, a counseling center, in Greenwich, Ms. Denis wanted to move back home to the East End, so she applied for an opening for a school nurse and counselor at Pierson High School in 1993.
“I was there for two weeks and they told me they needed me to teach health, too,” she said, a dual role she held for 12 years. “They would page me every time a kid got hurt, so I’d have to run out to the field or the gym and they’d assign a hall monitor to my room.”
One of the first orders of business in her new role in the classroom was to teach basic CPR to her students. With the help of trained instructors like Debbie O’Brien, Al Phillips, and Paul Fabiano of the Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps, and Tom Field of Amagansett, Ms. Denis was able to get the program up and running quickly. “That same year I got trained as an instructor myself and shortly after that, I trained as an instructor trainer,” she said.
That way she could train older students, first in an after-school club and later as an elective class, who could, in turn, replace the adult volunteers. “It was hard to get that many people there when you are training 80 kids, and need a trainer for each six kids,” she said.
Over the years, Ms. Denis said she had personally trained hundreds of students as instructors and that the number of students who have taken the class now numbers in the thousands.
“It was the first program of its kind in the whole country,” she said. “We received three different awards from the American Heart Association.” Eventually, New York State saw the value of the training and began to require basic CPR in all schools in 2016.
Over the years, many students, who had learned CPR in Ms. Denis’s health class, used that training to help save lives. Liam Keating saved the life of his father, Bill Keating, when he suffered a heart attack while driving in the village. Dan Fithian saved a man who collapsed on the street in Paris when he was there on a French Club trip. James McMahon aided another victim at the Ronkonkoma train station.
There are many others, Ms. Denis said, but her favorite involves former Pierson students Frank Romeo and Summer Semlear, who both volunteered with the Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps, fell in love and got married.
“The program has not only helped save lives, but it gave kids a little direction, confidence, and self-esteem,” she said.
Having retired, Ms. Denis, who is 66, said she has no plans to sit still. “I’m not the kind of person who wants to stay home and read books,” she said. “While that is a beautiful thing, I’d still like to help.”
She said she would offer to assist the CPR program on a part-time basis and wants to continue exploring other chapters in her life.
She has a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and is certified as an integrative holistic nurse coach, which she described as a counseling degree in nursing.
“I’ve got a lot of concerns about the mental health of people — especially young adults,” she said.
She is also a practitioner of Jin Shin Jyutsu, a form of Japanese healing touch to restore energy flow, and she and her friend Maria Maier, who plays Tibetan singing bowls, which provide a soothing, calming sound that is conducive to relaxation, have offered sessions at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton as well as at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.
“We were both once on staff at Southampton Hospital, but then COVID hit,” she said. “I’m hoping we can get back to doing that.”