Jose Zelaya, 14, and Alexer Lozano, 13, moved to Sterling in 2001. They had a lot in common, even though they did not know each other. They came from Spanish-speaking countries, and they both had to learn English for the first time in their individual elementary schools.
Little did they know, four years later, Zelaya would come to Lozano's rescue and save his life.
ZELAYA, A NATIVE of Honduras, is an eighth-grader at Sterling Middle School. Lozano, a native of Peru, is in the seventh grade. They are in the same reading class. About a week ago, their teacher Terri Elwakade gave a few students pieces of hard candy as a reward for completing their reading requirement for the third marking period. Lozano's piece got stuck in his throat.
"The students had their assignments. Some were at the computers and some were at their desks working quietly," she said. "Suddenly Alexer stood up and rasped that he needed some water."
She said he looked "stricken."
"He began walking in circles and grabbing his throat."
She asked if he was all right and he shook his head.
Elwakade attempted the Heimlich, but she couldn't dislodge the candy. "He was so tall that it didn't work the first two times I tried," she said.
The teacher turned to Zelaya for help. Having learned the procedure in [teacher Paul Helstrom's] physical education class, he ran across the room to Lozano's aid. He used the Heimlich twice before the candy popped out.
Lozano recalled, "I couldn't breathe. I couldn't take the candy out. I couldn't swallow or cough it up."
He had a similar experience three years ago, but he eventually was able to swallow the candy, he said.
ZELAYA SAID he returned to his seat and Lozano went to the water fountain. "I didn't realize I had saved his life," Zelaya said. "Everybody could do this."
Elwakade described Zelaya as a hero. "Alexer wouldn't be breathing if it weren't for Jose's quick action," she said.
Lozano said he told his friend "Thank you," when he came back to the classroom.
Both boys were the talk of the school.
Principal Ellen Fein said Zelaya failed to tell his folks when he got home. "He's not a bragger. He's a gentle giant," Fein said.
Vicki Sultan, the eighth-grade guidance counselor, called his mother.
Zelaya said Friday that he does not feel any different, three days after his heroic deed. "I feel like everybody is talking to me now," he added.
Fein said the experience drives home the message of how important it is to learn life-saving techniques. "It also shows how important ... it is for students to pay attention."