School Climate & Safety

Groups Urging Schools to Install Defibrillators to Curb Cardiac Deaths

By Michelle Galley — April 17, 2002 4 min read
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When John and Rachel Moyer’s 15-year-old son collapsed in his school’s locker room during a basketball game on Dec. 2, 2000, no one knew that the boy had suffered from a life-threatening heart disease.

Gregory Moyer’s school in Stroudsburg, Pa., was 25 minutes away from the nearest hospital, and even though he received cardiopulmonary resuscitation treatment almost immediately and was taken to an emergency room, it wasn’t enough. He died later that night.

Today, Gregory’s parents say, the one thing that could have saved their son’s life was an automatic external defibrillator. And now they are on a campaign to make AEDs as commonplace in schools as fire extinguishers.

“If there was a reason behind Greg’s death, it was to push us both in the direction of making sure this doesn’t happen to other people,” Mr. Moyer said.

The Moyers have plenty of company in their efforts. Parents, foundations, and private groups around the country are advocating that the devices be made readily available in a variety of public places, although some school health officials caution that the devices are not a panacea for heart-related emergencies.

In Los Angeles, defibrillators are being put into school district facilities with large concentrations of people. So far, 60 of the machines have been purchased.

Eventually all high schools, school board offices, and middle schools will have the machines on hand, according to Pete Anderson, the director of emergency services for the 723,000-student district.

State Activity

AEDs, which are small and portable, can deliver an electrical shock to the heart to help restore it to a normal rhythm after a person goes into sudden cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest occurs when abnormal electrical activity in the heart causes it to shake or quiver uncontrollably. As a result, blood stops pumping through the heart, and the person almost immediately loses consciousness.

According to the American Heart Association, for every minute of delay in delivering an AED shock, the chances of a person’s survival drop about 10 percent. And 220,000 people in the United States die from sudden cardiac arrest each year.

The AHA also recently reported that children as young as 11 years old can be trained to use the defibrillators. In a related move, the association has unveiled a new program, called Heartsaver CPR in Schools, to teach high school students to recognize the signs of stroke, cardiac arrest, and choking; call 911; and safely start cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The AHA recommends that schools implement the $5,500 program over three years.

Gregory Moyer died from a condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic disorder in which the heart muscle thickens. It’s only one of many heart conditions that can cause cardiac arrest.

One benefit of having the devices in schools is that they also can be used for faculty, staff, and members of the general public who attend events on campus, said Judy Robinson, the executive director of the National Association of School Nurses, based in Castle Rock, Colo.

Some state lawmakers are getting in on the act, as well. Last year, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a measure that offers two free AEDs to all school districts in the state. About 400 of the state’s 501 districts have applied for the machines so far. The devices generally cost from $2,100 to $3,500 each.

In New York state, legislation that would require every school with more than 1,000 students to have an AED is awaiting Gov. George Pataki’s signature. That legislation does not provide funding for schools to buy the machines, however.

Making a Plan

In Michigan, the Kimberly Ann Gillary Foundation, named after a 15-year-old girl who died from cardiac arrest two years ago after playing water polo at school, has raised almost $300,000 to buy AEDs for schools.

The Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee has put together a manual for schools that includes a step-by-step process on how to put a defibrillator program into effect.

That kind of guidance is important when schools are considering buying AEDs, said Ms. Robinson of the school nurses’ association.

“A plan has to be in place,” she said. Districts need to consider how they will pay for the devices, who will be trained to use them, and where the defibrillators will be located, Ms. Robinson said.

An AED would be of no use if it were locked away in a nurse’s office after school when activities were still taking place, she added.

Mr. Moyer recommended that schools put the devices in public places, but that they also attach an alarm to them, “so that people don’t try to walk off with one to heat up their coffee,” he said.

But, he added, a defibrillator would not work on coffee—or on a person with a normally beating heart, for that matter. The devices are designed to gauge a person’s heart rate and will administer a shock only if the heart rate is below a certain level.

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as Groups Urging Schools to Install Defibrillators to Curb Cardiac Deaths

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