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Wahpeton school defibrillator saves West Fargo man's life

Renee Langenwalter

A Wahpeton, N.D., school's defibrillator and some quick-thinking staff helped save the life of a West Fargo man last week.

St. John's Catholic School interim Principal Jim Milne was at a meeting about construction on a new school connected to the church.

That's when contractor Don Bernhagen suddenly leaned over, collapsing to the floor.

"He was breathing, but it was really labored," Milne said. "He was turning really blue in the face, almost purple."

After calling 911, a volunteer started CPR while Milne darted across the street to the school to get its defibrillator.

Seeing St. John's School receptionist Renee Langenwalter, who had been trained in using AEDs, Milne asked her to help.

She used the AED - automated external defibrillator - before Bernhagen was eventually taken to MeritCare Hospital in Fargo and later released. "I heard the start of the meeting and that was it," said Bernhagen, a 59-year-old West Fargo father of two.

Bernhagen doesn't remember anything after the heart attack until waking up at the hospital. But he said he's grateful for the quick-thinking staff and the school's AED.

"It saved my life - no doubt about it," said Bernhagen, a contractor with Gast Construction and Crane Service in Wahpeton.

Every school in North Dakota has an automated external defibrillator, thanks to a 2007 bill passed by the North Dakota Legislature.

The AEDs are portable electronic devices used to re-establish heart rhythms in patients before they're transported to a hospital.

The Department of Public Instruction received $400,000 to supply 368 AEDs to schools that were without one across the state.

It made North Dakota the first state in the country to have AEDs in every school, said state School Health Director Valerie Fischer.

Fischer said that since 2007 four lives have been saved as a result.

"It's the hub of the community," she said. "We just knew it was a good place to have it."

Langenwalter and everyone involved with last week's incident agree.

"It was extremely easy," she said, adding that neither she nor the school staff has ever had to use the AED. "And I hope I never have to again."