Teen saves 3-year-old cousin using CPR skills she learned in school

"She was so calm and confident," the teen's mother told "GMA."

Teen saves 3-year-old cousin using CPR skills she learned in school
Courtesy of Kirsten Atkinson
November 29, 2023, 3:23 PM

A California teen is being hailed as a hero for saving a 3-year-old relative from drowning by using the CPR skills she learned in school.

Kirsten Atkinson told "Good Morning America" she and her family were gathered for Thanksgiving last week at her home in Los Angeles when the shocking incident unfolded.

Atkinson's 3-year-old niece Maxine had gone outside to the backyard and entered the pool. Atkinson said within a couple of minutes, her fiance, who had gone to use the outside fridge, discovered Maxine in the water.

PHOTO: Home surveillance video provided by Kirsten Atkinson shows her niece Madison entering the backyard pool at Atkinson’s home before she had to be rescued by family members.
Home surveillance video provided by Kirsten Atkinson shows her niece Madison entering the backyard pool at Atkinson’s home before she had to be rescued by family members.
Courtesy of Kirsten Atkinson

"He goes outside and immediately sees what he thought was a dog floating in the pool, and quickly realized it was maybe Maxine, and he … jumped in the pool and grabbed her. He was yelling for help," Atkinson recalled.

Meanwhile, Atkinson's daughter Madison was taking a nap when she was woken up by the commotion.

"I saw my stepdad holding something. He was like, arched over, and I was trying to assess what was happening," the 15-year-old recalled. "I saw that it was [Maxine], and she was like, not breathing."

PHOTO: Three-year-old Madison was visiting her family on Thanksgiving Day on Nov. 23 when the pool incident occurred.
Three-year-old Madison was visiting her family on Thanksgiving Day on Nov. 23 when the pool incident occurred.
Courtesy of Kirsten Atkinson

Atkinson, however, said while she and the adults gathered around were "terrified," Madison was "so calm" and quickly stepped in to respond.

"I just told everyone that I knew CPR and I just started doing CPR," Madison said. "As soon as I realized that she was not breathing … I just started chest compressions."

The sophomore, who attends Taft Charter High School in Los Angeles, told "GMA" she had recently learned and been certified in CPR through a sports medicine class, and although it was her first time performing CPR, she knew what to do and didn't hesitate or waver.

PHOTO: Madison Atkinson, 15, learned CPR this year during a sports medicine elective class at Taft Charter High School in Los Angeles.
Madison Atkinson, 15, learned CPR this year during a sports medicine elective class at Taft Charter High School in Los Angeles.
Courtesy of Kirsten Atkinson

"My head kind of went blank, and I don't think I had any time to have any emotions in that moment," Madison said, adding that she had the Bee Gees' song "Stayin' Alive" in mind while she did compressions to keep a steady rhythm.

Added Atkinson, "We literally turned over the situation to her and we backed up and she walked right into it and kneeled down and immediately started the chest compressions for about two to three minutes."

After a couple minutes, Madison said, Maxine started spitting up water.

"Her eyes started to open up and she was like, gasping for air," she recounted. "And we're on the phone with 911, and they told us to roll her on her side so she could start breathing again. And then as soon as we moved her on her side, she came straight to it."

Atkinson added, "We witnessed this 3-year-old essentially go from lifeless to breathing and she came to life in front of us."

Afterward, Madison said the paramedics arrived and checked Maxine's vitals and took her to a local hospital for "extra checkups."

"She's perfectly fine. I don't think she understands anything happened," the 15-year-old said.

Atkinson said she is "beyond proud" of her daughter's actions, and since the incident, they've installed a pool alarm. She said she and the rest of the family also plan on learning CPR or brushing up on their skills with a refresher course.

"We all will be taking classes and getting trained to ensure that we can help someone else and if any of us are ever in a situation [like this], we can be as heroic and and helpful as Madison was in that traumatic situation," she said.

Madison also encourages others, including teens like her, to not hesitate in learning a lifesaving skill like CPR, or to jump in to help someone in need.

"Don't be afraid to ask or tell people that you know how to do that skill in that moment, because it could be worth someone's life," she said.

The American Heart Association states that only about 40% of people who need bystander CPR receive it. The medical group encourages all people to learn CPR through virtual or in-person classes.

Find your nearest American Heart Association training center here.