When Life (and Death) Imitates Art

Published in the Huffington Post

Do your kids play sports? Mine do. When they are young, they are just so adorable. It’s great just seeing them run around with their friends (even if they get distracted by a plane or butterfly). Then, our imaginations run wild.

How good will he be in a few years? Will she make the travel team? Could he play varsity or college? When will she drop dead before my eyes in front of a cheering crowd?

I’m pretty sure that most of you were with me until that last sentence. Fortunately, for the overwhelming majority, your reality will end happily somewhere between the seventh or eighth sentence. However, thousands of families across the country will face a much starker reality. Their child, their student athlete, will collapse and die from sudden cardiac arrest.

Last week, Claire Crawford reminded us of this stark reality. She’s a 17-year-old volleyball player who collapsed during a match. She went into sudden cardiac arrest and lay lifeless on the court. School personnel jumped in — calling 911, using an AED device, and administering CPR. These three measures, known as the Chain of Survival, saved Claire’s life.

The entire incident was captured on video. Watch now.

This video went viral and has been viewed over ten million times. However, Claire’s video is more than viral. It forces us to confront some very serious questions.

How can a seemingly healthy student just collapse? What are we doing to examine and protect the health of our students? Are we prepared for the next student who collapses?

We really don’t know much about our kids’ hearts. When they’re born, most of them get a pulse ox test. This measures the blood oxygen level and can reveal potential heart defects. It is very effective. However, once that test is done, we’re done. Our kids get a lifelong pass. We assume their hearts are good for the next several decades. And just how logical is that? Consider the facts.

Congenital heart defects are the most common birth defect. Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading medical cause of death of student athletes. Cardiac arrest is theleading cause of death among adults in the United States. It is greater than all cancers combined. The average heart beats 2.5 billion times during a life.

Wow! Our hearts are up against so much, but we chose to ignore them for most of our lives. Probably not the smartest decision.

Claire was a student athlete in Georgia. Like all student athletes around the country, she was required to undergo an annual pre participation sports physical. In Georgia, the form contains eight questions about the student’s heart and four questions about the family’s medical heart history. But, this didn’t protect Claire.

Claire probably completed at least three mandatory physical exams in high school. She passed them all. She was told everything was fine. In medicine, that’s called afalse negative and it can have deadly consequence.

We’ve known about the shortcomings of this approach for a while. A recent studyshowed that there are vast inconsistencies in the quality of pre-participation physicals our children get. It varies drastically by state. The study concluded that these exams “do not adequately address the personal and family cardiovascular history questions.”

Twenty-five years ago, the world watched a different video (on television, remember those days). Hank Gathers collapsed and died on the basketball court. Around the same time, the American Heart Association came out with recommendations on how to screen student athletes for underlying heart conditions. It concluded that a history and physical was enough.

We’ve had two decades of enlightenment and research. We can even watch videos on computers, tablets and smartphones now. However, despite these advancements and the prevalence of false negatives and sudden deaths, the American Heart Association stands by its twenty year old policy. Our kids deserve better.

Claire’s video reminds us of our failure to adequately protect our student athletes from sudden cardiac arrest, however it also serves as the model on how to respond to it.

Thanks to Project S.A.V.E, an affiliate of Project A.D.A.M, Claire’s school had a cardiac response team — a group of school employees trained to respond. The school was equipped with automated external defibrillators (AED) and the team knew where to find them. The team also knew how to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Claire’s story is the Disney version. Most stories have a more tragic ending. The chances of surviving sudden cardiac arrest are negligible without AEDs and CPR. But, most people are unprepared. Teachers don’t know CPR. Schools don’t have AED devices. Coaches, and even pediatricians, don’t recognize the symptoms.

As parents, we can make a difference.

1. Talk to your athletic director and legislator about the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Prevention Act. It protects student athletes from sudden cardiac arrest by raising awareness, and has been enacted in eleven states.
2. Raise money to purchase AEDs for your schools and clubs. Less than twenty percent of states require them in schools.
3. Make sure students learn CPR. Twenty-six states require CPR as a graduation requirement.
4. Take it upon yourself to get your kid’s heart screened. There are over sixty organizations around the country providing this service.
5. Ask the American Heart Association to do something special this Heart Month. Improve the cardiac screenings of our children!

There is a saying that life imitates art. We can only hope this is true after watching Claire’s video. It should inspire us to do a better job of preventing sudden cardiac arrest, and serve as an example of how we should prepare for and respond to it.

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