Grape of wrath no match for custodian

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When Dylan Dowd, a third-grader at Memorial Elementary School in Bethel Park, was choking on a grape during lunch, school custodian John Kovach, was nearby to perform the Heimlich maneuver.

Last week, "Double D," as the 9-year-old is called, stood by "Mr. John" while the custodian received commendations from local politicians, who praised him for his quick response.

Dylan had been eating lunch in Memorial's cafeteria in March when he began to choke. He tried to drink water, but it sputtered back out of his mouth. From 30 feet away, Mr. Kovach saw Dylan's face and knew there was a problem. He hurried over and performed the Heimlich maneuver, freeing Dylan's airway. No grape appeared, and Dylan's pediatrician said later it was likely he swallowed it.

The Heimlich maneuver is an emergency first-aid treatment in which the choking person is lifted from behind and his diaphragm is squeezed so that air can be expelled to dislodge the obstruction.

Mr. Kovach, worried that Dylan might go into shock from the trauma, started joking with him, asking, "What'd you do with my grape?" Dylan was fine, though his mother took him to the pediatrician to be sure.

Dan and Tammy Dowd, Dylan's parents, later bought Mr. Kovach lunch and dined with him in the cafeteria to thank him for his actions. Mr. Dowd said it was the second time Dylan has had the Heimlich maneuver performed on him; he also had choked as an infant, and his father used the infant version of the technique.

Mr. Kovach, 56, was recognized for his life-saving act at last week's Bethel Park school board meeting, which was attended by Allegheny County Councilman Vince Gastgeb and representatives from the offices of state Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon, and state Rep. Matthew Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon. Mr. Gastgeb also read a statement from U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair.

"Having him there at that time meant all the difference in the world," Mr. Gastgeb said.

Mr. Gastgeb knows Mr. Kovach because Mr. Kovach helped create the flag retirement site in South Park.

At age 19, Mr. Kovach signed up to serve in the Marine Corps. He retired three years later as a sergeant first class and served in the Pennsylvania National Guard for 15 years. He was hired by the Bethel Park School District in 1976.

"If I had to sum up the last 34 years, all I can say is I love my job," he said.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.


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