NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – A Staten Island family is grateful for a holiday gift of a lifetime.

As CBS2’s Cindy Hsu reported, 8-year-old Joseph Elsis was rushing to finish a hamburger at PS56 when he started to choke last week.

“I took too big of a bite and I started choking,” he told Hsu. “I just ran up to Miss Josephine like this, even though I didn’t know that was the sign.”

“I just instantly grabbed him and gave him a couple Heimlich maneuvers. It took like three or four before the food actually came out,” school aide Josephine Catanzaro said.

“Then I choked it up, and it looked like a big piece of chewed up ham,” said Joseph.

The boy can laugh about it now, but admits he was scared. His mother calls Catanzaro her son’s guardian angel.

“This could have went differently. In the blink of an eye, I could have lost him,” Brigida Elsis said. “And I’m so thankful and happy that Josephine was there and that she was trained to save him.”

Signs all over the school show how to perform the Heimlich maneuver, and Catanzaro had learned it years ago in first aide training.

“You think you’re never going to use it,” she said. “It’s so rewarding knowing that you saved someone’s life, because it would be devastating if I wouldn’t have been able to.”

At least two staff members are required to be certified in the Heimlich, CPR and defibrillator. There are six people trained at The Louis Desario School.

“We tend to over-staff, because we have a very young population and we like to be safe rather than sorry,” said Assistant Principal Joseph Bonomi.

Catanzaro demonstrated what she did.

“You place your fist between his belly button and his rib cage,” she said. “With my other hand, I press inward and do it a couple times until the food is dislodged.”

Joseph said he knows how lucky he is.

“She saved my life,” he said, adding it’s the best holiday gift he could get.

Catanzaro has three grown children and said Joseph now feels like her little son. She has worked at the school for 17 years and saved another child with the Heimlich just a few years ago.

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