Joann Leser has been working at the same restaurant for decades – but on June 2, 2018, she did a shift there that she won’t be forgetting anytime soon. You see, the waitress spotted a customer speeding towards the bathroom – and soon realized that it was up to her to save the woman’s life.
Leser was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A former student at North Hennepin Community College, she now resides in Coon Rapids. And she has been working at the Crystal Café in the town of Crystal for over two decades.
The restaurant is located in a strip mall and is popular for its traditional U.S. food, especially all-day breakfasts. It has even made the news on a couple of occasions. For instance, back in 2014 the eatery had to close temporarily owing to a fire that resulted in more than $100,000 worth of destruction.
Owner Jim Staricha also sparked controversy during the 2016 presidential election for putting a special on the menu called “Donald Trump’s Border Patrol Burger.” The dish featured a beef patty topped with ingredients including chipotle sauce, jalapeños and tomato guacamole. And while he claims that it was simply designed to be a “conversation starter,” Staricha was criticized for the idea.
But the Crystal Café gained attention for a very different reason in June 2018 – and it was all thanks to Leser. As a seasoned waitress at the café, she’s accustomed to dealing with the busy breakfast rush on a Saturday morning.
And it was during this period that a shocking incident occurred within the restaurant. Leser was serving customers when she noticed that someone was in desperate need of her help. Fortunately, she sprang into action and came to the rescue.
Leser was standing close to the restrooms when a woman hurried past her. “She was walking to the bathroom pretty fast, and I thought she was going to get sick,” the waitress told KARE-11. “And then she came out seconds later waving her hands.”
The woman was later identified as Tricia Sandberg. She had been dining at the restaurant with pals and enjoying her usual dish of eggs Benedict. But all of a sudden, a piece of food got stuck in Sandberg’s throat – and she became terrified.
“The incident was very scary,” Sandberg told the Sun Post. “I went into the bathroom first, hoping that I could get it out of my throat myself, but it didn’t happen!” So after Sandberg emerged from the restroom, Leser spotted her in a state of panic.
Leser quickly realized what was going on because she’d been in a similar predicament herself in the past. “I knew she was choking. I had choked on a bratwurst 15 years ago, so I knew the panic and the flailing signs when no air is coming in and no air is coming out,” she explained. And luckily for Sandberg, Leser also knew just what to do.
Thankfully, Leser had seen the Heimlich maneuver performed on television and has an understanding of how it works. So she immediately rushed to Sandberg’s side and got behind her. And then she wrapped her arms around the customer and made an abdominal thrust.
When that didn’t work, Leser tried again. “I could see the panic in her eyes,” the waitress told KARE-11. “I knew she was choking. So I spun her around. It was two Heimlich maneuvers, [and then] she spit [it] out and was gasping for air.”
What’s more, Leser’s quick-thinking actions were effective, and the food became dislodged. Sandberg could breathe again. “I’m just glad Joann was there and that she could tell something was wrong,” Sandberg told the Sun Post.
The two women subsequently shared an embrace after getting through the ordeal, and Leser then headed to the bathroom to take a moment for herself. Then, when she stepped back into the restaurant, most customers didn’t even realize what had just taken place in front of them. “It happened so fast that 90 percent of the café didn’t know what just had happened,” Leser explained.
Yet although it was a worrying moment for them both, Leser still had work to do. So she returned to waiting tables, while Sandberg began finishing her meal. “We just gave each other a hug, and it was the middle of a busy rush,” Leser told KARE-11. “She went back to her boyfriend to eat her breakfast.”
Leser had clearly acted calmly when she saved Sandberg’s life, and yet the waitress later admitted that she’d been shaken up by the incident. “It was definitely an emotional experience,” she said to the Sun Post. “Honestly, I thought I’d be the one to panic and waste time calling 911. Thank God I acted so quickly. And it was over so quickly, I was shocked.”
Afterwards, Sandberg expressed her gratitude for what Leser had done for her. “That was the most frightening thing ever, and I know I scared the heck out of myself and her,” Sandberg admitted. “For that, I am sorry!” And Sandberg added that while she won’t be giving up her beloved eggs Benedict, she’ll take smaller bites and be more careful when it comes to chewing her food in future.
This was actually the first time that Leser had ever seen a customer choking – or used the Heimlich maneuver. And while many patrons hadn’t even noticed her lifesaving actions as they unfolded, the story was soon picked up by local news stations. Then a couple of weeks later, during a Crystal City Council meeting, Leser was given a chief’s award by Police Chief Stephanie Revering, who is also a Crystal Café customer.
“Because of her quick thinking and reactionary skills, the Crystal Police Department and City Council would like to recognize Ms. Leser for her brave efforts,” Revering said. Meanwhile, the waitress admitted that she was “nervous” about having her photograph taken. But she explained that she had been encouraged to accept the honor because “there is so much horrible news today that people want to see something good.”
What took place at her restaurant made Leser realize the importance of having medical knowledge. And the waitress now plans to receive training in first aid and CPR and hopes others will be inspired to do the same. Leser learned the hard way that a little knowhow can go a very long way – and she’s mightily relieved that Sandberg lived to tell the tale.