Project SAVE: Is your child's school heart smart?

7:42 PM, Aug 23, 2012   |    comments
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Example of a portable heart defibrillator (file photo)

ATLANTA, Ga. -- We hear a lot about heat exhaustion and concussions. But it's estimated 1,000 students die every year from cardiac arrest. That's almost three children a day. Project SAVE is trying to change the odds by educating schools and parents about how to detect and react to a heart attack.

The name stands for Sudden cardiac death, Awareness, Vision for prevention and Education. Dr. Robert Campbell championed the program at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Sibley Heart Center after a series of sudden pediatric deaths.

The goals are to detect warning signs through the use of pre-participation history forms and physical exams, teach school nurses, teachers and coaches how to recognize the signs of heart disease and get the equipment and training into schools to save lives.

Project SAVE coordinator Alison Ellison can think of at least 15 students in Georgia that have died from probable cardiac arrest. Most of us think of high school athletes like Terrell Wilson, a football player in Suwanee, who died after watching a game. But Ellison also thinks of the 9-year old who died at Sope Creek Elementary school after jumping rope.

"He jumped 77 times and he told his buddy he jumped 77 times. And he sat down and then he kind of flopped over in his neighbor's lap. The teacher had no training at all. Had no idea that a healthy looking 9 year old boy would have, could have a sudden cardiac arrest," said Ellison.

Things are different at Sope Creek now. The school is active in Project SAVE, as are more than 900 other schools throughout Georgia. But with more than 2,000 schools in the state, not to mention parks and recreation programs and little league teams, there's still plenty of work to do. 

Holy Innocents' Episcopal School in Atlanta has embraced the program with passion. It has nine automated external defibrilators,or AED's, on campus and every staff member knows how to use them.

"All of our faculty and staff are required to be certified in CPR and AED and there's also a first aid, first responder component too," said Associate Headmaster Rick Betts.

Holy Innocents' head nurse showed 11Alive how the AED's work. "It's to jump start the heart and bring it back to its normal pattern," said Tammy Green. "We have not ever needed to use it, but we are very well prepared to use it."

Green says the AED's are placed so they can respond to an emergency within the 3-5 minute window, critical to save a life.

"We have them near the fields and we have them, we can actually carry them. They're portable," said Green.

The school also aggressively uses its pre-screening application to look for warning signs of an undiagnosed heart condition. Any student in Georgia playing in interscholastic sports has to fill one out. But Ellison says too many parents gloss over the questions without realizing their importance.

One of the key questions asks if anyone in the child's family died of heart problems or suddenly before the age of 50. Ellison encourages parents to talk to older family members before checking the yes or no box.

"Young parents in particular may not know about young aunt Sally who died when she was 20 and nobody knew why, but grandma probably does know," said Ellison.

While it's common to find an AED on school grounds these days, it's not as common to find a trained team ready to use it. But in the past five years, thanks in part to Project SAVE, Ellison says the statewide program has helped save at least a dozen students and 18 adults.

"The plan and the program is really as important as the device because it doesn't jump off the wall and save lives. You need to have people trained to recognize sudden cardiac arrest, trained to respond to sudden cardiac arrest," said Ellison.

Terrell Wilson's mother started a foundation after her 14-year old son died, to raise money for family's that can't afford EKG's or other life saving preliminary tests to detect congenital heart defects.

She's also fighting to get EKG's added to the list of pre-screening requirements for school athletes. She had no idea her son had an aortic tear and that the pain of holding her child as he died is something no parent should have to experience.

Parents can check this list to see if their school is a part of Project SAVE and encourage them to get involved if they're not. Project SAVE suggests every parent ask leaders at school or facility where their child plays or practice whether they have an AED, where it's located and if someone is trained in how to use it.

Important warning signs for parents to watch:
Fainting or sudden seizure during or immediately after exercise or a loud sound. Unexpected chest pain or shortness of breath with exercise. Excessive or unexplained fatigue associated with exercise. 

Premature death from carviovascular disease in a close relative younger than 50 years old.

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