January 2022 — In the service industry, fast food lives up to the name. Slow moments are few, and most shifts pass by in a blur. Overall, this has been Sydney Raley’s experience since taking a part-time job at her local McDonald’s last May. In contrast, “time completely stopped” for the 15-year-old on Dec. 18, at the tail end of an afternoon shift that she says will stay with her for the rest of her life.
“I guess the day started like any other,” Raley recalled. “Sometime around 2:45, I was double-checking orders and handing out food” at the busy McDonald’s location across from the Eden Prairie Center mall. She passed a bag to a woman at the drive-thru, and then turned her back to retrieve the rest of that customer’s order.
“When I handed that second bag out the window, I noticed the driver was coughing unnaturally, and a lot,” she said. “I also saw her daughter’s face through the car window, and her face – wide-eyed and utterly scared – was a dead giveaway that something was really wrong.”
Fortunately for the choking patron, the Edina High School sophomore knew exactly what to do. “When I was 11 years old, I took a Red Cross babysitting course. That’s where I learned to do the Heimlich maneuver, along with CPR, AED and some other first aid training.”
Under these circumstances, actually reaching the woman in a timely manner was a feat unto itself – one that required Raley to actually leave hers! Instead of running toward the nearest door and doubling back to the drive-thru, “I jumped straight through the window.”
Raley may be the only one unimpressed by her maneuver. “It’s a larger window, maybe 3.5 or 4 feet tall … with, I’m thinking, 2 feet of clearance between the building and the line of cars. I had plenty of room to jump out and get the car door open.”
In the same instant, Raley shouted for her manager to call 911, and asked the daughter in the passenger seat to do the same. “That’s when I got her out and started doing the Heimlich.”
“I’m not nearly the strongest person out there,” the 15-year-old admitted, and her initial efforts did not dislodge the chicken nugget on which the customer was choking. Fortunately for them both, another patron saw the scene from the parking lot and rushed over to offer his own first aid expertise. Between the pair of them, the Heimlich maneuver had the intended effect.
“I stayed with them, making small talk and trying to ease the situation, until the paramedics and police arrived,” Raley continued. “The woman didn’t say much. She was mostly crying from shock and relief. I get it; if you have a choking incident, it is super frightening.” However, her teenaged daughter “had the same look of relief, and kept saying ‘Thank you so much, Thank you so much.’”
Much to Raley’s surprise, that was only the beginning of the gratitude she’d receive that month.
When they arrived on site, the responding Eden Prairie Police Department officers each gave Raley a $50 bill – money available to good Samaritans through the Eden Prairie Crime Prevention Fund’s annual “Cops and Cash for the Holidays” program. She received additional rewards, monetary and otherwise, from McDonald’s corporate office as well as the owner/operator of the Prairie Center Drive franchise.
Raley is even more touched by the media attention that her actions inspired. Early interview requests came from regional outlets such as KARE 11, and national ones including CNN. Her story has since been picked up by USA Today, the New York Post, and many more besides.
“I know there are not a lot of people who can say they appeared on live television. It was so amazing. I’m not going to forget it … Nothing about this experience is forgettable.”