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From the Sidelines: The New Sports Form That Could Save a Life

Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes during sports. This rule change is aimed at saving lives.

Published on: September 28, 2015


Sports parents, put your hands up if you feel like you’ve signed a million redundant forms with the same information about your child, your home phone, the date of your child’s last tetanus shot?

So, with yet another form to sign off on this fall, our first inclination might be to groan. But don’t. Because this actually might be life or death we are talking about. The new form relates to sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) awareness, and by reading, yes actually reading, the whole information sheet, you might save someone’s life.

Matthew Truax, a junior at Edmonds’ Meadowvale High School, passed out during a PE class two years ago. Adults rushed to him and called 911. But no one went to get an AED, the automated external defibrillator, to begin administering shocks. No electrical shock was given to Matthew’s heart until medics arrived 7 minutes later.

Melinda Truax’s son died just days before his 17th birthday. She was one of those testifying in Olympia last spring for a new state law that eventually passed, called the Sudden Cardiac Awareness Act (SB 5083). “This law is the number one thing we wanted after Matthew’s death, we want everyone to be educated as part of state law,” she testified.

The law mandates that all players and parents or guardians read and acknowledge an informed consent form relating to the risk of sudden cardiac arrest before they use any school facilities in the state of Washington. Coaches must also complete specialized training.

If you’re thinking to yourself, My kid is healthy, exercises, and I’ve got nothing to worry about, then you, too, should study up. Sudden cardiac arrest is not a heart attack from clogged arteries; it’s usually caused by a structural or electrical disorder of the heart. Many of these conditions are inherited and manifest during adolescence. Oftentimes, there are no warning signs. If you are still thinking, my kid has passed all their sports physicals with flying colors, the problem is, “Those sports physicals don’t look under the hood,” says Dr. Jonathan Drezner, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Sports Cardiology.

Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes during sports. Which is why families who have been struck by its tragedy are heralding the passage and signing into law of SB 5083. “It’s a bill that doesn’t cost anyone anything,” says Drezner. Rather it is about educating parents and the coaches whom we entrust with our young athletes’ well-being.

Under the SCA Awareness Act, any sports organization, public or private that uses public school facilities must have their coaches watch an online training video. “They need to always assume that if a kid goes down, it’s a cardiac emergency,” says Darla Varrenti of the Nick of Time Foundation. Varrenti, along with Washington State Senator Rosemary McAuliffe, have been drivers of SCA awareness efforts statewide. “My wish list for this state still is to have every school, not 50 percent of them like now, but all of them have AEDs available and have emergency action plans in place,” Varrenti says.

Parents can get better educated, too. After registering on the website for the National Federation of State High School Sports Associations, parents can watch an online course on SCA awareness at no cost and learn similar tips to what the coaches are learning. After all, many parents are also assistant coaches and are watching the fields as closely as anyone.

This year, the Truax family is marking what would have been Matthew’s 19th birthday with the installation of 27 AEDs in four Edmonds high schools. The family’s Heart of Edmonds School District and Community Heart Safe Project has raised $50,000 so far for this first phase. Melinda Truax now works to raise the other $50,000, which will cover AEDs in the district’s middle and elementary schools. Along with the devices themselves, there will be maintenance on the machines and training for coaches and parents on how to use them. 

Photo credit: Nick of Time Foundation

Varrenti’s 16-year-old son had been a talented, multi-sport athlete in high school. Nick was a #58-wearing Pittsburgh Steelers fan who, when given the chance to pick the team’s pre-game get-pumped song, chose The Foundations’ Build Me Up. The family had no idea he had an underlying condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM. His death in 2004 and his mother’s resulting grief inspired the Nick of Time Foundation.

So back to the concept of getting a better look under the hood. What can a parent do if they want that look? The Nick of Time Foundation holds cardiac screenings at high schools around the area. Students are given an electrocardiogram, or ECG, and if anything abnormal is detected, an echocardiogram. The results are reviewed immediately onsite by cardiologists and sports physicians experienced in adolescent heart screens.

If your child is not a student at one of the schools, as of last year, another option is the University of Washington’s Center for Sports Cardiology, which offers $50 screenings with no need for insurance or a physician’s referral.

While there are often no warning signs with a child’s underlying condition, experts say if your young athlete is fainting during exercise, complains of chest pain or excessive shortness of breath, or if you have a family history of early onset heart disease, you should seek a physician’s evaluation.

At the very least, fellow parents, read the information sheet before signing the form for your childrens’ teams. Being a new law, I have noticed some organizations are rolling out the requirement more smoothly than others. But let’s not view it as just one more place to sign on the line. If a child goes down, there’s too much at stake.

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