Portable heart defibrillators will be installed in every Denver Public School beginning in August, and teachers and staff at the schools will be trained how to use them, thanks to a gift from the American Red Cross’ Save A Life Denver program.
Denver will join Jeffco, Douglas County and a handful of other school districts that have placed the $1,000-plus machines in every school building. The devices have been placed in many other individual schools throughout the state, often through the efforts of non-profit groups who fund their purchase.
The reason: Sudden Cardiac Arrest kills an estimated 300,000 Americans every year, including about 7,000 children. In March, a 17-year-old Poudre High School student, Matthew Hammerdorfer, died after suffering a heart attack during a rugby match. His death was one of a string of heart-related deaths to claim student athletes around the country this spring.
But the incidents aren’t limited to athletes. In 2006, sudden cardiac arrest claimed the life of 3-year-old Brianna Badger, a pre-school student at Denver’s Asbury Elementary School. That same year, 17-year old Dan Lunger, a student at Standley Lake High School in Jefferson County, collapsed and died of an undiagnosed heart condition.
Not quite two years later, another Standley Lake student, Lindsay Hayden, also collapsed while in class. But this time, she was revived thanks to the portable defibrillator that had been placed in the school, a gift of Lunger’s parents following their son’s death. Both the Lunger and the Badger families set up memorial funds to educate others about sudden cardiac death.
DPS considering devices for years
DPS officials had been pondering the installation of the devices – called automated external defibrillators, or AEDs – for at least the past five years, but lacked the resources to make it happen, said Stephen Finley, DPS director of risk management and co-leader of emergency response planning for the district. At one point, officials considered tapping some savings in the district insurance fund to buy AEDs.
Then they heard about the Save A Life Denver program, which aims to install 1,000 AEDs in public buildings throughout the city.
“We contacted the Red Cross and said we’d like 200, and could they work with us,” Finley said. “And they said ‘sure.’”
Facts about sudden cardiac arrest in youth
- Approximately 10 percent of sudden cardiac arrests occur in people under 40, and more than 7,000 people under 18 die from undetected heart conditions each year.
- Children and adolescents are twice as likely to survive SCA than either infants or adults.
- Young athletes suffer sudden cardiac death twice to three times as often as their less active peers.
- The median age of young athletes who suffer sudden cardiac death is 17. Ninety percent of young victims are male. Just over half are white; 44 percent are black.
- Most SCA deaths in student athletes are precipitated by strenuous physical activity, particularly during football and basketball.
Source: Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation
Even when the cost of the AEDs is covered, school officials haven’t always been anxious to accept them. In 2005, the Colorado legislature passed a law, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Spence and Rep. Angie Paccione, that required school districts to accept donations for the purchase of an AED.
It’s known as “David’s Law,” in memory of David Brooks, who died in 1995 of cardiac arrest while at summer camp. He was 12. His parents were told that an AED would probably have saved his life, but when they attempted to purchase AEDs for some schools, school officials didn’t want them, chiefly because of liability fears.
In 2009, the Colorado legislature enacted another law providing limited immunity to people who render emergency care involving an AED, as long as they have received some sort of training in its proper use and the equipment is properly maintained.
AEDs not always welcomed
Even so, not every school has welcomed the arrival of an AED.
“It wasn’t a quick and easy decision,” Finley said of DPS’s deliberations. “It’s an additional duty. The real problem isn’t just mounting a box in a hallway and putting an AED in. It’s the training and monitoring required. That’s the biggest logistical problem for us. We need five to seven people trained for each unit we receive, depending on the size of the school. So that’s 600 to 800 people to keep track of, and some of those people will always be leaving and new people coming in.”
Beyond that, many people simply don’t view sudden heart attack as a common enough occurrence among children to make placing AEDs in schools a top priority, given all the other budget demands confronting educators.
“It takes a champion in each school. It takes someone at the school to believe in it, to get out there and beat the drum,” said Rich Perse, founder and president of HeartSmart Inc., a company that provides AEDs and CPR and AED training to organizations, including schools. “A lot of people don’t believe kids have bad hearts. I’ve even had a school nurse tell me kids don’t have bad hearts.”
But Perse points out that children aren’t the only people inside school buildings.
“Schools are really community centers,” he said. “On any given day, 20 percent of Americans are in some sort of school setting. There are concerts, Christmas plays where grandma and grandpa come to watch the kids. They come to basketball games. Schools are rented out to church groups on Sunday morning. They’re not just in use by children during the school day.”
Working with the Kick Start My Heart Foundation, Heart Smart has placed nearly 90 AEDs in Colorado schools. Participating schools must raise $750 as a “buy-in,” and then are put on a waiting list. As the group is able to fund more AEDs, the participating schools get an AED plus training for 10 staffers. It’s a package worth about $3,000, and the longest any school has had to wait was six months, Perse said.
Calls for more thorough screenings in schools
But placing AEDs in schools is only half the equation, say health officials. AEDs can prevent a death once a heart attack has happened. But many would like to see those heart attacks prevented in the first place. They call for stepped-up screening procedures, especially for student athletes.
“People need to understand that the sports physicals kids get now are a complete joke,” said Perse, formerly a firefighter and paramedic with the West Metro Department in Lakewood before launching his company. “They have them cough and take their blood pressure. But what needs to be happening is cardiac heart screens in gym class.”
That, too, is a controversial stance. The American Heart Association calls for a thorough physical exam and detailed medical history for every young athlete, but stops short of calling for a mandatory EKG before athletes are permitted to play.
Opponents of mandatory heart screenings for student athletes point to the cost of obtaining them, which could knock some low-income children out of participating in sports if their parents couldn’t afford to get them screened. They also point to the number of false positives on such tests.
Proponents of heart screening say the cost can be reduced. Last month, more than 600 Adams County athletes showed up for a free health fair for students at Thornton High School. Every young athlete was given a 12-point EKG, and two pediatric cardiologists were on hand to read the results. “Out of 600 kids, three were red-flagged for further follow-up,” Perse said. “That’s three kids who could have died on the basketball court.”
University of Denver hockey player David Carle, 21, didn’t discover he had a heart condition until the summer after his senior year of high school, when he worked out at a National Hockey League scouting combine. NHL doctors looked at his EKG and recommended he get further tests done. He later discovered he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
Carle had already committed to play hockey for DU, but following his diagnosis his career in sports seemed at an end. Nevertheless, the school honored Carle’s four-year scholarship, and he now works with the team as a student assistant coach.
“My condition wouldn’t have been discovered without the EKG, unless something had happened and I’d passed out on the ice,” said Carle, a native of Anchorage, Alaska. “So my advice to students is just, ‘Go and get screened.’”
Perse is so convinced of the value of heart screenings, especially for young athletes, he intends to form a charitable foundation to promote the practice. He’ll call it the Play With Heart Foundation.
“With all my contacts around the state, we can help create an infrastructure where we can show schools how to do good cardiac heart screens at no cost to the school or family.”