Prevention of Sudden Death in Athletes

From The Orange County Register




COSTA MESA – For the second straight year, doctors, educators, administrators and parents gathered Saturday to talk about something they already know: that portable defibrillators can save the life of a young athlete stricken by sudden cardiac arrest.


And yet their goal of getting a defibrillator in every school seems far off, slowed by the recession and legal issues.


Dr. Anthony Chang, medical director of the pediatric heart center at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, told dozens of people at the “Life-Threatening Events Associated With Pediatric Patients in Sports” symposium that great progress has been made since the inaugural event a year ago.


“We’re literally at the cusp of breaking through in terms of permanent action,” he said.


The conference, founded by Chang and Dr. Dan Cooper of UCI, has established the goal of making Orange County a model in protecting young people who play organized sports. Its goals include: comprehensive screening, including an electrocardiogram for athletes prior to competition; CPR training for faculty and students; and increasing the number of automatic external defibrillators, devices used to shock the heart into beating again.


Reaching this level of preparedness is expensive. Take the defibrillator goal alone: One unit can cost $1,500 to $3,000, and require training and maintenance. Of the 29 school districts in the county, 10 have at least one.


“One on every campus is ideal,” said Pamela Kahn, a registered nurse who’s the coordinator for health and wellness for the county Department of Education. “In the economic climate, that’s certainly difficult. But it’s possible.”


With every district struggling with diminished funds from the state, advocates are trying to find private-sector alternatives, with help from families who have dealt first-hand with sudden cardiac arrest.


Kirk and Lori Stuewe of Anaheim Hills told the crowd inside Department of Education headquarters about their 14-year-old daughter, Shauna. She was a seemingly healthy 14-year-old freshman at Esperanza High School and a “flier” on the junior varsity cheerleading squad. She had just completed a routine stunt when she complained of dizziness and fainted. She later died.


It wasn’t until three years later that doctors were able to determine the cause of death: CPVT, a genetic mutation blamed in about 15 percent of deaths from sudden cardiac arrest in young people.


Her parents created the Shauna Ann Stuewe Foundation and have used donations and fund-raisers to place 37 defibrillators in area schools. They also go into schools to inspect existing machines, and they’ve often found troubling signs: The machine often has pads or batteries that need replacing, or it’s locked up in a principal’s office, where it’s not easily accessible.


“Some look like they take it on the football field with them, which is fine,” Lori Stuewe said. “But you have to clean and maintain them. You can’t have dirt all over them.”


Money isn’t the only obstacle to getting more machines in schools. State law requires that any school with a machine must ensure that someone trained in its operation be available during school functions, even if only a few students are present. Other kinds of institutions don’t have that restriction.


“I could put (one) in central jail in Santa Ana much easier than I can put one in my daughter’s middle school,” said Dr. Sam Stratton, medical director of the county’s Emergency Medical Services.


The Department of Education’s lobbyist will push for that provision of the law to be changed. Others are confident that more defibrillators will get into schools.


“With the budget crisis the way it is, there is an absolute 100 percent commitment that, budget be damned, we’re going to figure this out,” said Bruce Baron, principal at South Lake Middle School in Irvine.