Maria Welker, 89, was choking on a piece of salmon when aspiring doctor Alex Jones, 18, came to help.
JAMESTOWN, N.Y. — Maria Welker lived through a World War II-era concentration camp, escaped to become a refugee in Austria, where she met her husband, and later made her way to the United States, raising a family and living a full life as a naturalized American citizen. She’ll celebrate her 89th birthday later this month.
Alex Jones is 18. He graduated from high school nearly a year ago. He’s now a few weeks from finishing up his freshman year at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. He hopes to be a doctor, someday.
Disparate paths, different generations, but with one frantic cry Sunday morning — “Does anyone know the Heimlich?” — their lives were forever linked.
Alex and his family were making the drive back to Mercyhurst on Sunday after a visit home to Bolivar, New York. They stopped at the Bob Evans restaurant in the Jamestown area, as they often do. They had left Bolivar a little later than normal that morning — a serendipitous delay, as it turned out.
Maria is a regular at the Bob Evans. A weekly trip to the restaurant is part of her routine — she loves the salmon. She was joined by her family on Sunday, which was in town to celebrate her grandson getting inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
A joyous occasion turned grim in an instant as Maria began to choke on her meal.
Her daughter, Karin, asked if anyone knew the Heimlich — softly at first, then with more fervor as her mother continued to struggle. A waitress arrived and said she knew the maneuver, but her certification card wasn’t current. A moment later, Alex stepped to the table and took command of the situation. He’d heard the commotion from across the restaurant, springing into action when he realized his talents were needed.
Alex performed the Heimlich and dislodged the food. Afterward, he stayed by Maria’s side to make sure she was OK.
“He was very attentive to her,” Karin said. “He was a very impressive young man. He was super competent, calm and professional.”
Alex maintained that humble demeanor a few days after his actions saved a life.
“It’s just something you’ve got to do, you know? I happened to be there in the moment,” he said. “It’s just kind of like doing my job.”
The Welker family — not to mention the rest of the restaurant — treated Alex like a hero. Countless hugs and handshakes followed. The family tried to show its appreciation by giving Alex some cash, which he attempted to turn down. They wouldn’t have it, insisting he take at least a 20-dollar bill. Maria gave him one of her favorite German chocolates.
The restaurant got in on the act and picked up the tab for the family’s meal.
“It was a scene. I was just happy it turned out well,” Alex said. “Everybody was very flustered. It caused a big commotion, and everyone was thanking me after. I was just trying to do the right thing.”
Remarkably, it wasn’t the first time Alex employed the Heimlich to save a life. He was leaving a Bolivar-Richburg High School function last year when he came to the aid of a young boy who was choking on a piece of candy. That experience gave him confidence as he approached Maria’s table and entered an emergency.
“After the first time, I studied up more and got a little better at it,” he said. “Of course, you get nervous, but since I had done it before, it wasn’t a big deal to me. It’s something that has to be done. Someone has to take the initiative to do it. That’s a really big step. I had to calm everyone else around me down. Everybody had to relax a little bit and give her some space. After that, I did the Heimlich and then did it once more. When she smiled, I knew she was OK.”
Alex, the son of Patrick and Beth Jones, got his CPR certification while going through the New Vision program for BOCES. He shadowed Dr. Paul Axtell at Jones Memorial Hospital and realized a career in orthopedic surgery might be in his future. He’s currently attending Mercyhurst on a full scholarship.
The Welker family certainly thinks he’s chosen the right career path.
“He was a nice young man. I’m happy he was there, or I wouldn’t be here,” Maria said, adding that she couldn’t believe she had survived a concentration camp to almost pass on in a Bob Evans.
Maria is still spry as she nears her 89th birthday. She lives independently and makes a point to avoid escalators and elevators. She walks four flights of stairs to her apartment, sometimes with groceries in each hand.
Her world was turned upside down when she was younger than Alex is today. Peasant farmers in the former Yugoslavia, Maria’s family, made up of ethnic Germans, was sent to a concentration camp in the aftermath of the Nazi defeat. Family members perished far from home. Her father was shipped to a Russian forced-labor camp — a “slave camp,” Maria calls it. When her father was reunited with the family years later, they didn’t recognize him. He was all “skin and bones.” Even so, he lived within six months of his 90th birthday.
A medical condition makes her predisposed to choking — Sunday was her second close call — but she has no plans to slow down or end her trips to Bob Evans anytime soon.
“I’m a naturalized citizen now and very proud,” she said. “This is the greatest country in the world. I think I’ll make it to 100.”
As for Alex, he’s just happy he was there at the right time to make a difference.
“A lot of people are saying it’s heroic, but I just think I did my job and did what I was supposed to do,” he said. “Everybody should be prepared to do something like that.”
Chris Potter is a reporter for the Wellsville (N.Y.) Daily Reporter.