Amherst girl, 9, meets paramedic who delivered her at fire safety graduation

  • Vaishali Konowitz, 9, front, recently completed a fire education program. At an Oct. 25 graduation ceremony, she was surprised by a visit from Chris Bak, right, a Northampton paramedic who helped deliver Vaishali in her Florence home in 2007. Also pictured are Vaishali's dad, Chip Konowitz, back left, brother Chaitan and mother Sujuta. Submitted photo

For the Gazette
Published: 11/6/2016 8:26:27 PM

AMHERST — Vaishali Konowitz, 9, stunned the people around her with her grand entrance into the world, but when she took the stage at a graduation ceremony for a fire safety education program last month, she was in for a surprise of her own.

Family and friends shocked the fourth-grader by arranging for her to be greeted on stage at the Student Awareness of Fire Education graduation by Christopher Bak, the Northampton paramedic who delivered her on Feb. 22, 2007, at her family’s home in Florence.

“We had planned on having a nice water birth at Holyoke Medical Center, but my daughter had different plans,” said father Chip Konowitz.

A student at Crocker Farm Elementary School, Vaishali was one of more than 200 fourth-graders being celebrated at the SAFE graduation on Oct. 25 for students of the program in Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury. Fire chiefs from each respective town were present, along with Peter J. Ostroskey, the state’s fire marshal.

Vaishali said she was completely unaware of what her family had planned.

“It was exciting…I was thinking, what is going to happen?” she said.

The idea to have Bak present her certificate came from JP Kennedy, an Amherst firefighter and paramedic who is active in the SAFE program.

At a pancake breakfast to raise money for the SAFE program, Kennedy invited Vaishali to go inside an ambulance for the first time. Chip Konowitz jokingly noted that his daughter had already seen the inside of an ambulance, and that got the two men talking.

The idea grew from there.

Graduation surprise

A graduation surprise became the perfect opportunity to reminisce about Vaishali’s story. While the birth was significant to the family, Bak said it also had tremendous meaning to him.

“It’s said that when one person dies, another person is born. Well, she was born on the anniversary of my father’s death,” he said.

Bak, who has been a paramedic for nearly 40 years, said Vaishali’s birth is the first and only time he has been in charge of a delivery. The paramedic explained that deliveries are a special experience for rescue personnel.

“We don’t deal with too many happy and well patients. It’s usually someone in some type of distress … but this is one of those times where you’re happy to be there,” he said. “It’s a great thing, as opposed to something that’s pretty dismal.”

Over the years, Bak said the family has stopped by the station to show him pictures of Vaishali or just to say hi. He used to run into them from time to time, as well, but that no longer happens since the family moved to Amherst a few years ago.

He was honored to appear at her graduation.

The ceremony speakers led into the surprise by quizzing students on what they had learned, telling families things the students had learned and bringing up the importance of knowing how to call 911.

Finally, they tied in Vaishali’s story and had Bak walk on stage. “She just lit up, and it was amazing. I got a big hug and it was really great,” he said.

Comfortable with 911

Vaishali’s mother, Sujuta Konowitz, said the surprise was a great way to highlight how the SAFE program strives to increase children’s comfort towards the idea of calling 911.

Sujuta said that she never expected her labor to require a call for help.

When Sujuta’s sister came to her weeks before Vaishali’s birth saying she was haunted by a dream that the baby was going to come very quickly, she assured her sister that the worst thing that would happen is they’d have to call 911.

That’s exactly what happened. Now, Sujuta said she wants her daughter to know that 911 is always there when needed.

“This is a story about calling a first responder, and now Vaishali feels comfortable around firefighters,” she said.

Chip said he agrees that this mission of SAFE is a crucial part of the program, and that the graduation surprise depicted that very well.

“It allows her to recognize some of the important people in the rescue community, and that she has a relationship with some already, and they’re not just some uniformed people on the streets,” Chip said.

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