"The greater the work the more
important it is to establish it on
a solid foundation. Thus it will
not only be more perfect; it
will also be more lasting.”

St. Louise de Marillac

“Be diligent in serving
the poor. Love the poor,
honor them, my children,
as you would honor
Christ Himself.”

St. Louise de Marillac


Heart-Warming Conclusion

By Katelyn Rieder, Communications co-op

(From left to right) Cura employee Aaron Payton and Sisters of Charity employee Bill Tonnis reunite after Aaron helped save Bill’s life following a choking incident.

On Nov. 7, 2023, a near-catastrophic event unfolded in the employee section of the Motherhouse Dining Room. As a Mother Margaret Hall employee was eating lunch, he began to choke and have trouble breathing. After several individuals tried to help, a Cura employee stepped in and performed the most-effective, life-saving Heimlich maneuver.

Bill Tonnis is a chaplain in Mother Margaret Hall nursing facility. His work includes tending to the spiritual needs of the Sisters, as well as participating in events and activities in the facility. He enjoys getting to meet with the many Sisters who live there and chat about anything, from thoughts about the afterlife to what they had for breakfast.

Prior to the incident on Nov. 7, Bill had never talked to—or even met—Aaron Payton, an employee with Cura Hospitality that works in the Motherhouse Dining Room. He spends his shifts serving food, cleaning dishes, and any other necessary tasks to get the place clean and tidy.

Aaron was originally not even supposed to be on campus Nov. 7; he picked up the shift at last minute. Additionally, he normally did not eat his lunch in the employee dining room. He decided to join one of his coworker friends, sitting several tables away from where Bill and members of the Activities Department sat and chatted.

“I was eating soup of all things, but I was doing everything wrong,” said Bill. “I was eating peanuts on the side, I was talking, and I was in a rush – so all of the things that I know aren’t good things to do.” Just before his throat was clogged, he recalled telling his friends from the Activities (Nancy Witschger, Bev Anderson, and Cheryl Pannabecker) a tragic story from the weekend prior, where a relative of his was fatally injured in a car accident. He remembered saying something along the lines of: “I’m sure when people die, they get up that day and have no idea that’s the day.” Seconds later, Bill’s choking began.

Immediately, Nancy and Bev both tried to individually perform the Heimlich maneuver as Bill struggled, while Cheryl ran off to get a nurse. Despite trying their best, they weren’t able to provide enough strength to properly clear his throat. It was then that one of Bill’s friends from the Transportation Department, Jim Meyer, appeared behind him. He was able to perform the Heimlich with a bit more success, but it still was not enough.

As the panic began to grow, Aaron ran over and performed the Heimlich maneuver only three times before the entirety of the blockage was out of Bill’s system. Despite only being self-taught in the Heimlich maneuver, Aaron was able to do what others could not. “There was a lot of people that tried, but everyone seemed a bit scared and didn’t know what to do,” said Aaron. “My thinking the entire time was just, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really happening!’ I had to really step up for a second.”

While the situation did not last longer than a minute or two, it felt as if time had slowed down for Bill. “Right before that, I’m frantic,” he said. “But, there was this sort of calm voice or understanding in me that said: ‘You’re going to have to relax your stomach muscles so that he can do this right.’” It felt as if some presence was reaching out to Bill, and was trying to let him know that all would be okay.

This near-death experience struck a strong chord with Bill, as someone who deals with the afterlife a lot as a chaplain. “It appeared that you were calm,” he said to Aaron, “which was comforting, even though I was frantic inside. I think I thought, ‘That’s my last chance right there.’”

The experience left Bill physically shaken-up and bruised (he emphasized how difficult it was to sleep the first few nights after the incident), but some good was still able to arise. “There’s so much dissension and arguments in society, everybody’s angry about this and that,” said Bill. “But when you get down to it, we’re just human beings on this planet together. And when you get down to it, everybody helped. And it didn’t matter what you believed or I believed, everyone came together.”

He continued, “I deal with death a lot as a chaplain. I know it’s part of life, and I also know you need to talk about death—it’s a common thing we all share. In a weird way, this is kind of good that people have a chance to talk about it. I think everyone witnessed how fleeting life can be, so appreciate the time and the people you have.”

Aaron summed up his reaction to the response from the SC Community as, “A lot of praises, maybe too many praises,” he laughed. “I’m not really used to all this attention from people.”

Bill responded, “I’ve been telling people that I’ll try not to create a scene today!” He’s grateful to the number of people who have come up to him (either in-person or over email) and expressed their joy that he came out of the scary experience okay. However, he is especially grateful to the man that ultimately saved his life: Aaron.

“Of course, you’re welcome,” replied Aaron. “I mean, I’m here every other day working if you need saving again,” he laughed.

Bill laughed with him, “I’ll be sure to space out my incidents.”

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