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Before lunch on Sept. 18, Russ Palen was a custodian at Woodland Elementary School in Troy, beloved by the students he took the time to get to know. By the end of the lunch hour, he was being hailed as a hero for saving a student’s life.

Palen was assisting students in the cafeteria and cleaning up when a student approached him, pointed to the boy he had been sitting next to and said, “Mr. Russ, that little boy is choking.”

“I was scared to death, but then at that moment, something changed,” said Palen. “I let out a scream — ‘That kid is choking!’ — and went over to him and picked him up.”

Palen’s actions saved the boy’s life, principal Arryn Schneider said in a statement issued Wednesday by the Avondale School District. “Russ immediately went over to the student and performed the Heimlich maneuver and dislodged the nacho chip the student was choking on.”

Fourth-grader OcTave Lawrence of Troy was OK — just a little shaken up — and able to continue on with the day’s classes.

“He started crying and for a minute, I just rubbed his back while he recovered his breath,” said Palen, 55, an Auburn Hills resident. “The more tears that came, the more I knew he was getting better.”

Mother LaTosha Lawrence expressed her gratitude for the custodian who saved her son.

“I’m a registered nurse, so I know what could have happened if the quick efforts from the staff went lacking,” she said. “My family and I are forever grateful to the Woodland staff member Mr. Russ.”

Palen is a former manufacturing supervisor for an automotive supplier who lost his job seven years ago during the Great Recession. Part of his supervising job required him to take safety classes and get certified each year.

He hasn’t taken a class or used the training in many years, but it came back when he needed it most.

“I just did what I was trained to do back then,” said Palen. “Until it happens to you, you won’t know that you can do it.”

Schneider called Palen’s actions heroic. “We’ve always known Russ cares about all of our students, and that day, Russ was a hero,” Schneider said.

For his part, Palen says he just did what needed to be done.

“I appreciate the word hero, but I look at it as I was just doing as I hope anyone would in the same situation,” he said. “I’m just glad I was there when I was and that the little boy is OK.”

lrazzaq@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2127

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