A decade after her son’s death due to heart arrhythmia, Lisa Wilson has placed over 100 AEDs in public spaces, led the effort to train tens of thousands of people in CPR and raised over half a million dollars in memory of her son
Written by BRIENNE WALSH
EVEN 11 YEARS AFTER THE TRAGEDY OCCURRED, it is still hard for Lisa Wilson to talk about the day that her son, Cory, passed away in 2013.
“I get up, and I put the face on, and put the scarf on and go to work,” says Wilson, who is the district nursing administrator for the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS). “But the minute that [Cory’s death] gets near the surface, it’s overwhelming.”
Cory, she says, loved big. “He was like a 5-year-old in a 21-year-old’s body,” Wilson says. He didn’t call his mother as much as his baby sister, Morgan, does; but when he did, it was to express wonder at the world. “It was like, ‘Mama, did you hear that song?’” Wilson recalls. “Or, ‘It’s raining, I love the rain!’”
His general silliness is why fellow students thought Cory was joking when he collapsed in a morning class at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, where he was a junior management major. When they finally realized that something was seriously wrong, there was no automated external defibrillator (AED) nearby, and it was minutes before another student tried CPR. Minutes that Cory, who had suffered a fatal heart arrhythmia, didn’t have.
When Wilson arrived at the hospital 45 minutes after receiving the call that her son had collapsed, Cory no longer had any signs of life. But his cheeks were still red, and there was still ice in the water bottle he had packed earlier that morning. Wilson, who had been a certified CPR instructor for years, thought to herself, “I’m not going to let him die. I’m going to be able to use this story to show how we can save lives using CPR.” With the help of nurses, she did CPR on Cory for 36 minutes before the doctors pulled her away from his body.
“I’m not tired,” she remembers crying. “This is all my life on the table.” To this day, even though she knows it’s not rational, she still hasn’t forgiven herself that she wasn’t able to save Cory’s life.
To ease the pain of loss, a pain that never diminishes, Wilson has devoted her life to teaching other people how to react in an emergency. “Do what you can do,” she says. “Don’t just stand there.”
The best way to save a life is to become CPR and AED certified. But even if you don’t have those qualifications, says Wilson, you can still help in a life-threatening event by holding open an emergency door for first responders or pointing out the location of an AED in the building where you live or work. If the building doesn’t have an AED installed, you can lobby your employee or landlord to install one. There’s no time like the present to get started. February, after all, is American Heart Month, and the American Heart Association offers resources for finding a CPR class and building a cardiac emergency response plan, both of which could save lives.
Wilson, despite all the pain she has suffered, has certainly made a difference in the lives of many. Through the Cory Joseph Wilson Memorial, which raises awareness and hosts fundraising events, she has placed over 100 AEDs in schools, stadiums, sports facilities and other public spaces across the country — three of them on November 11, 2023, which would have been Cory’s 32nd birthday. She has also led the effort to train tens of thousands of people in CPR and raised over half a million dollars in memory of Cory.
As a result of her advocacy, in 2016, Wilson was the Open Your Heart Honoree at the American Heart Association’s annual Heart Ball in Atlanta, which raised over $1.2 million. In the same year, Wilson successfully lobbied the Georgia General Assembly to rename SB 245, which brings further attention to life-saving measures, to the “Cory Joseph Wilson Act.”
“Cory loved all things bright, all things good. “He was just so full of life.”Lisa Wilson, Cory’s mother
“We are grateful for Lisa’s support in our local schools as we work to create the next generation of Heartsavers by giving all students and educators the opportunity to learn CPR and creating more qualified lifesavers in our community,” says Ansley Howze, the executive director of the American Heart Association. “We know that Hands Only CPR can double or even triple someone’s rate of survival if experiencing a cardiac emergency, so we’re committed alongside these critical volunteers to equip our schools with the knowledge to respond.”
Wilson plans on retiring at the end of the 2023/24 school year. Along with spending time with her family, including her two young grandchildren, she will continue to advocate for CPR training in the school system, especially for sports coaches. She would also love to work toward a mandate that all schools conduct cardiac drills once a month. And if she were really allowed to dream, she’d love to see Cory’s story turned into a film that could inspire others to lead lives full of love and compassion.
“Cory loved all things bright, all things good,” Wilson says. “He was just so full of life.” Even though it can be hard to keep going without him, Wilson and her family are committed to using his story to save lives in the future. “You might not be able to change this whole world, but you can change the part of the world that you’re in,” she says.