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Donna Bryan hugging granddaughter Kenzie Smith

Donna Bryan of La Crosse hugs granddaughter Kenzie Smith on Thursday after the 7-year-old was honored for making the 911 call that saved Bryan's life. Kenzie not only got to wear a crown but also received a framed certificate and a T-shirt from the La Crosse Fire Department for her heroics after Bryan passed out during a medical emergency.

Seven-year-old Kenzie Smith set an emergency room physician straight when he said her grandmother, Donna Bryan of La Crosse, would be severely incapacitated if she survived a recent health crisis.

“Kenzie stepped up and said, ‘Well, this is my favorite grandma, and you have to fix her up,’” Bryan recalled Thursday after Kenzie was honored as a lifesaving hero during an assembly at First Evangelical Lutheran School.

The 75-year-old Bryan was unconscious at the time, so she’s relying on hearsay, but that’s the story she heard from relatives recounting her near-death experience.

The incident occurred after Bryan felt ill when she took the La Crosse girl to the Onalaska High School Show Choir Classic on Jan. 13, she said.

“Kenzie just loves that, so we had a date,” Bryan said in an interview. “But I couldn’t get my breath” when they arrived at the school, so she told Kenzie they would have to leave.

A woman who gave them a ride to Bryan’s car expressed concern and offered to take them home, but Bryan declined the offer, thinking she was just having a spell and could shake it off.

However, while driving, “my head felt weird, so I pulled off, shut off the car, gave her the phone and told her to call Momma,” Bryan said. “Thankfully, my daughter taught her how to use the phone.

“I don’t remember anything after that until I woke up in the hospital,” she said.

Kenzie’s mother, Rebecca Smith, told her to hang up and call 911, which she did, and although she didn’t know for sure where they were, she guided first responders to their location.

Bryan, who has been undergoing cardiac rehabilitation while recovering from a heart attack she suffered in July, said she hadn’t been feeling well for a couple of weeks but dismissed any concern over that.

“I assumed it was because it was cold,” she said. “I just thought I’m older, and it’s cold.”

Taken to Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare, Bryan said she learned later that the physician determined that her lungs had filled with fluid, causing her to pass out.

Bryan has an advance directive stipulating no extraordinary measures be taken if she is deemed unable to breathe on her own, so the doctor was consulting the family when Kenzie delivered her own directive — with the support of other family members.

“She is so grandma-orientated because I spend so much time with her. I do a lot in Kenzie’s life,” because Smith is a single mother who adopted Kenzie, Bryan said.

“The doctor said I would be a vegetable if I survived, and Kenzie was worried I would be a vegetable,” said Bryan, a mother of five who is able to look back with humor on the experience and five days in the hospital.

When Bryan came to in the hospital, she tried to ask about Kenzie but couldn’t talk because she had been intubated.

“I kept trying to say ‘Kenzie,’ but I couldn’t. So I asked for a pencil and paper and wrote it. They knew my brain wasn’t dead because I was writing,” she said.

Medical personnel described her recovery as a miracle, one that Bryan attributes to excellent care and an active prayer circle.

“This is a miracle,” Bryan said. “I can’t believe it, but I am blessed.

Learning CPR at First Lutheran

Third-grader Evan Sheehan learns CPR on a training dummy during a presentation Thursday at First Evangelical Lutheran School in La Crosse. Firefighters and staffers from Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare taught CPRE and AED techniques to students after a ceremony honoring second-grader Kenzie Smith.

“Everyone says I’m supposed to be here for my granddaughter,” said Bryan, a retiree whose jobs have included administrative work at Bakalars Sausage Co. in La Crosse and Urgent Care at Mayo-Franciscan. “This was a special day for me and for Kenzie.”

Indeed it was, with participants including La Crosse Fire Department first responders who answered the 911 call. Kenzie’s honors for her lifesaving actions included getting to wear a sparkly crown, as well as receiving a framed certificate and a T-shirt from the fire department.

For good measure, Mayo-Franciscan staffers used the occasion to teach Kenzie and about 100 schoolmates how to do CPR and the workings of automated external defibrillators.

“I’m so glad Kenzie is going to school there,” Bryan said of First Lutheran. “They just have such nice attitudes. It’s a nice place, and they seem more understanding.”

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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