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Metro Detroit schools step up efforts to keep students "heart safe"

Huge jump in numbers since first 7 Investigation
Posted at 11:26 PM, Dec 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-28 23:26:35-05

It usually happens without warning signs:  kids and adults, dying from sudden cardiac arrest.  In Michigan, it happens to more than 300 people each year.

Now more local schools than ever before are stepping up to keep kids and their hearts safe.

In April of 2016, the 7 Investigators showed you how schools in Southeast Michigan were lagging far behind schools in other parts of the state when it came to heart safety.  Now, it’s a different story.

Heart safety is a high priority at Athens High School in Troy.

Seventeen years ago, Troy Athens student Kimberly Anne Gillary died from sudden cardiac arrest during a water polo match.

“It left a big hole in our family,” said Randy Gillary, Kimberly’s father.

“One of the ways that we found that we could deal with our grief was to try to do something to help somebody else -- try to save someone else’s Kimberly,” said Gillary.

The Gillary family started a foundation that raises money to put Automated External Defibrillators, or AEDs, into schools across the state – something that was not in place when Kimberly died.

By law, all High Schools must have a written medical emergency response plan.  But the state health department encourages schools to take it a step farther and become a MI HEARTSafe School.  Those schools must have a team with CPR and AED training to respond to an emergency during school hours and after-school activities.

HEARTSafe schools also have to have AEDs that are ready to use – and they must do a cardiac emergency drill every year.

In late 2015, Gillary noticed that very few schools in southeast Michigan were considered “HEARTSafe.”

“So I wrote a letter to all of the principals in the tri-county area and said look, you’re getting your butts kicked, basically, by the schools on the west side of the state,” said Gillary.

It worked.

Wayne County went from 0 to 19.

Macomb went from 4 to 14, and Oakland County went from 1 HEARTSafe School to 53 – the most in the state.

“We really wanted to be ready,” said Troy Schools Deputy Superintendent Mark Dziatczak.  Dziatczak was an educator at Athens when Kimberly died, so he knows the devastation sudden cardiac arrest can bring.

“Those first 3 – 5 minutes are so critically important in saving a life, and so if we have the plans in place, if we’ve done our drills, and we have students and faculty aware of what needs to happen, we know that we’re going to be successful in saving a life,” said Dziatczak.

That’s why in addition to being a MI HEARTSafe School, nearly all Athens students also become CPR certified, and they learn to use the AEDs.

“Make sure we are very aware of the situation that may happen, and the seriousness of it, and that we are fully prepared for it when it may happen,” said Athens student Nayla Contejean.

“After the training it really hits you – wow this could happen and I need to know how to act in the moment,” said Athens student Laura Kaseri.

While Gillary is relieved more schools are becoming “heart safe,” he won’t rest until every school in Michigan is equipped to save as many people as possible.

“Call the Principal of either your kids or grandkids school and ask them if they are a MI HEARTSafe school, and if they’re not, ask them why not? And don’t take no for an answer.  Make sure that if they’re not a MI HEARTSafe School, they become a MI HEARTSafe School,” said Gillary.

If you would like more information about the MI HEARTSafe School Program, please click here.

If you would like more information about the Kimberly Anne Gillary Foundation, please click here.  All donations go entirely to the mission of providing AEDs in Michigan schools.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her or call 248-827-4473.