Each year, more than 300 children and young adults in our state will die from a sudden heart attack – and it usually happens without warning signs. So why aren’t our local schools doing more to try to make sure students can be saved on the athletic field or in class?
April is Michigan Student Athlete Cardiac Awareness Month. The 7 Investigators have learned that there’s a state program that’s pretty easy for schools to apply for which shows their commitment to keeping our kids safe. But are the schools doing enough?
“It’s about the worst thing a parent can go through. It left a big hole in our family,” said Randy Gillary. The father from Troy says there isn’t a moment that goes by that he doesn’t miss his daughter Kimberly.
“I have a picture of Kimmie at my stairs, and every time I go up at night, I give her a kiss and say goodnight,” said Gillary.
Kimmie was just 15 back in April of 2000 when she collapsed on the pool deck after a water polo match at Groves High School. Kimmie had sudden cardiac arrest, even though she’d never had any heart problems before.
“Great physical condition-- she had been on a swim team since she was 4-years-old,” said Gillary.
Bystanders tried CPR, but there was no Automated External Defibrillator, or AED, at the school at the time to get her heart started again.
“That was, I think, one of the main reasons why she was not able to be saved,” said Gillary.
That’s why this family from Troy started the Kimberly Anne Gillary Foundation. Their goal initially was to donate AEDs to high schools across our state. Much of that mission has been accomplished, but now they want more to be done. Gillary wants every school in Michigan to be designated by the state health department as a MI HEARTSafe School.
“As far as I’m concerned there’s nothing more important than making sure that you can save a student that has a sudden cardiac arrest in your school. That’s more important than did they get an A or B on a test,” said Gillary.
In 2014, the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services launched a program that encourages schools to earn a special designation as a MI HEARTSafe School. By law, High Schools must have a written medical emergency response plan. But the MI HEARTSafe Schools program takes it a step farther, requiring a team with current CPR and AED training to be available to respond to an emergency during school hours, and at organized after-school activities and sports.
Additionally, MI HEARTSafe Schools the schools must meet these criteria:
- At least 20% of staff, 50% of coaches and 50% of P.E. staff with current CPR/AED certification.
- The sufficient number of accessible, properly maintained and inspected AEDs, ready to use, with signs identifying AED locations (A sufficient number is estimated by the time to the scene of the emergency with a target goal of 3 minutes).
- The performance of at least one cardiac emergency response drill each year
- All athletic pre-participation screening completed with the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) form
“Just having an AED doesn’t help. Knowing what to do and who can use it is important, as well as making sure that that response time is minimized,” said Beaumont Pediatric Cardiologist Dr. Nancy Cutler. Dr. Cutler was the driving force behind getting her son’s former high school, Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, designated as a MI HEARTSafe School.
“These schools are so competitive with their athletics and pushing these kids, you don’t want to push them to the point where you can’t save their life. You’re sending them out there without the tools to save their life if something were to happen. The schools need to be held accountable,” Dr. Cutler told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.
But the Frankel Jewish Academy is the only school in Oakland County that’s received the state designation.
Just four schools in Macomb County are considered MI HEARTSafe Schools, and there are none in Wayne County. Southeast Michigan is far behind Genesee County, and schools on the west side of the state.
State officials say that’s probably because of the more recent high profile death of a star basketball player from Fennville High School. Wes Leonard collapsed and died after making the game winning shot back in 2011. His family has also started a foundation to make sure schools and coaches are prepared to handle cardiac emergencies.
“In Judaism, we say that if you save a life, you save a world,” said Frankel Jewish Academy Head of School Rabbi Azaryah Cohen.
Kids like Wes and Kimmie are the reason the Frankel Jewish Academy has the MI HEARTSafe Schools designation.
“My hope is that you never have to put something like this into practice. But for the times that you do, the lives that it can save, this is a priority,” said Rabbi Cohen.
Experts say parents should ask the principal at your child’s school to see their emergency response plan. It’s supposed to be in writing. Parents should ask your high schools about this state program and whether they plan to participate.