Hot Button: Shock to the System

Could the solution to healthy kids dying on the athletic field be a simple hand-held electronic devi

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Could the solution to healthy kids dying on the athletic field be a simple hand-held electronic device?

In June 2006, 15-year-old Christopher Giovannetti was in gym class at Woodinville’s Leota Junior High School, running around the track and looking forward to summer vacation. Suddenly, the freshman passed out. When his fitness teacher Melissa Barnum got to him, Giovannetti was having a seizure. She and co-teacher Ron Saario checked Giovannetti’s breathing and pulse, and Barnum performed three to four rounds of rescue breathing while Saario fetched an automated external defibrillator, or AED. Fortunately, Barnum revived Giovannetti before paramedics arrived, and before having to use the AED.  Giovannetti was later diagnosed with arrhythmia—an abnormality resulting from a malfunction in the heart’s electrical system. Doctors at Seattle Children’s hospital implanted a heart monitor during a four-hour operation; last July, doctors gave Giovannetti a clean bill of health and removed the device from his chest after having it implanted for more than two years.

Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA)—a condition in which the heart suddenly goes into an abnormal and potentially lethal arrhythmia, causing blood to stop flowing to the brain and other vital organs—is the leading cause of death in young athletes. Every three days a young athlete passes away from SCA in this country. Overall, it kills some 325,000–350,000 people in the United States every year. Ninety-five percent of them die within minutes. And in most cases, victims were otherwise healthy and unaware of their condition and had no apparent risk factors, which makes diagnosis virtually impossible.

Jonathan Drezner, M.D., who holds a sports medicine fellowship and is an associate director in the department of family medicine at the University of Washington, researches these types of attacks in young people and believes the numbers of young people affected are even greater. “This figure reflects only young competitive athletes, not all children, like the kids just exercising in the park,” he says. In other words, if you added to that all active kids—not just athletes—it would be between 200 and 300 additional cases per year, he says. While these numbers are relatively small, they are especially tragic given the age of the victims.

The condition, in most cases, isn’t preventable, but there is growing evidence suggesting that having an AED on hand—a hand-held, computer-like device used to shock the heart back into a normal, healthy rhythm­—could improve the odds for stricken students. But today, only about 54 percent of Washington state’s 400 or so comprehensive high schools—serving grades 9 through 12—have on-site defibrillators. According to Drezner, most of those devices were donated and implemented without a well-coordinated emergency plan.

An AED is about the size of a laptop computer and relatively easy to use. The device—applied to the victim’s chest—monitors the heart’s rhythm for any abnormalities, and if necessary, directs the rescuer to deliver an electric shock to the victim. AEDs range in price from about $1,500 to $2,600 and vary according to manufacturer and model.

Drezner, 38, published a study last June in the HeartRhythm Journal that found young athletes and young active individuals have a mere 11 percent chance of surviving sudden cardiac arrest. “If you think about it, it’s the most precious part of our population,” says Drezner.

Having someone do good CPR can expand that window a little bit, says Drezner. “But by far the single most important factor in treating victims of sudden cardiac arrest is that interval to defibrillation,” he says. “If we can reach people within three minutes from th