Riverhead school bus driver Martin Doelger, center, with school board members Laurie Downs, Susan Koukounas, Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez, school board members Christopher Dorr, Therese Zuhoski, Elizabeth Silva and Brian Connelly. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

It all started with a Munchkin.

Martin Doelger, a Riverhead school bus driver, was in the middle of loading sixth and fifth grade students at Pulaski Street school for the afternoon run last Friday, when he looked at his rearview mirror and saw a girl with a contorted facial expression, mouth open, trying to breathe.

A sixth-grader was choking.

“When I saw her, I thought, ‘she has problems, she needs help,’ and I ran,” Doelger said.

His instincts — and the prior training he had received — quickly kicked in. He assessed the situation, and, realizing the urgency of the moment, yelled at a teacher who was passing by to go get help. He then did the Heimlich maneuver, a first-aid procedure that is used to dislodge an obstruction from a person’s airways in which strong pressure is applied on the abdomen, between the navel and the rib cage.

“The main thing I was concerned is that I got 200 pounds on her, that I didn’t break a rib or something,” Doelger said in an interview Tuesday.

He didn’t break a rib, and by the time the teacher came back with help, the girl’s windpipe was clear of the lodged Munchkin, and she was breathing again.

After getting the okay by the school nurse, Emma—the girl— rode back home on the bus that same day. Doelger said that the school principal, other staff and the kids present thanked him and one even yelled out “Give him a raise!”

The whole event took seconds, said Doelger, but Emma and her family, will forever be grateful for his quick actions that afternoon.

School officials also took note.

Doelger—a bus driver for the last three years— was honored Tuesday night by the school board of education for his actions, where he received a recognition and the heartfelt words of Emma’s parents, as well as schools superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez.

“I have to commend our bus drivers,” Henriquez said. “One in particular tonight. With everything going on in the district, Martin saved a child’s life last week.”

“I honestly can’t say enough, Mr. Doelger, but two words that mean the world: thank you,” Henriquez said.

A message that was echoed by Emma’s parents through a statement that was read to the entire audience. Emma’s parents were not able to be present at the time of the recognition due to work commitments (Emma’s father arrived later in the meeting.)

“I’m just very thankful that my daughter was able to walk away from that experience,” Emma’s father said later in the evening. “She’s kind and good-hearted. She’s a very good student, and I was just very pleased with how everything was handled on Friday.”

“We make life a little bit, but [we] could have definitely find [ourselves] in a different situation,” he said.

Henriquez also talked about the role bus drivers play and how they work as a team with school staff.

As an example, she said that in February, it was a school bus driver that overheard students talking about the “Momo challenge,” a recurring viral hoax that looks to scare parents and children alike. That driver alerted the school and they were able to take the steps to let parents know, Henriquez said.

“It should be noted that the employees of this district are still attentive to their responsibilities. Due to their ability to take care for our students, my daughter Emma was able to walk away from a situation that could have been far worse,” Emma’s parents said.

Doelger said that come Monday, it was all back to business as usual. When she saw Emma, he asked her if she was okay and if anything hurt. “She said ‘I’m fine,’ and that was great to hear,” Doelger said.

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Maria Piedrabuena
María, a multimedia reporter, graduated from Stony Brook University with degrees in journalism and women and gender studies. She has worked for several news outlets including News12 and Fortune Magazine. A native of Spain, she loves to read, write and travel. She lives in Manorville. Email Maria