It is a tragedy that has become all-too-familiar. A student is playing basketball, practicing football or just walking to class when they lose consciousness and collapse from sudden cardiac arrest. They stop breathing — and if they do not receive immediate treatment, the consequences could be fatal.
Sudden cardiac arrest cases like this are the leading cause of death, with nearly 360,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occurring annually in the United States, according to the American Heart Association.
Looking to ensure that students, especially athletes, at Hilmar High School don’t become just another statistic, the high school has partnered with local medical centers and Via Heart in San Francisco to provide screenings to 750 students at no cost.
The idea to bring free screenings to students started with Hilmar Unified School District nurse Michelle Komos, who read an article about San Diego teen Eric Paredes, who died unexpectedly from sudden cardiac arrest in 2009. Following his death, his parents Hector and Rhina Paredes started the Eric Paredes Save A Life Foundation to provide free screenings to teens to help identify cardiac anomalies that may lead to sudden cardiac arrest.
While Komos was told that Hilmar High was too far to get free screenings from the Eric Paredes Save A Life Foundation, she was directed to the Via Heart Project in San Francisco, which started under the approval and guidance of the San Diego-based foundation.
In order to secure the $13K sponsorship needed to bring the Via Heart Project and free screenings to Hilmar High, Komos and football coach Frank Marques only needed to make two phone calls: one to Emanuel Medical Center and one to Livingston Community Health. Both organizations agreed to donate $6,500 each to the cause and provide cardiologists during the day of the screening for students and their families looking to discuss their results.
“We are so impressed with the response we got from Emanuel Medical Center and Livingston Community Healthy. Both places have been so supportive and onboard with this from the beginning,” said Marques. “We are surprised with how quickly they responded to this.”
The importance of free screenings hits close to home as well, according to Marques and Komos, who said that in 2011 Hilmar High lost its assistant coach and former student athlete Franky Silveira, who died at the age of 25 from cardiomegaly, or an enlarged heart. The free screenings in April will be named in Silveira’s honor.
“He was a student and a coach here and was very heavily involved in the community,” said Komos. “We could have potentially saved his life if he had a heart screening so it’s very important that we do this for all of our students.”
“We are really proactively trying to catch any of our athletes that have an issue. We are just trying to save kids from dying or getting seriously injured,” said Marques.
As for the free screenings, Marques said that students at Hilmar High School will get priority registration before the school opens it up to the general public in surrounding communities around the beginning of March.
“We’ll have plenty of spots for local communities to get their athletes tested for free if they wish to.” said Marques. “We don’t want to have any empty spots.”
Marques said that his goal is to motivate other neighboring communities like Turlock and Livingston to host free screenings of their own.
“Hopefully it catches fire in our area where more high schools start doing it,” said Marques. “My goal is that every kid in our area that is an athlete gets tested. If we can prevent someone from sudden cardiac arrest and dying from it, all the money and effort is worth it.”
While the screening event in April will be a first at Hilmar High, the school’s efforts to save someone who is having sudden cardiac arrest are not, according to Komos, who said that Hilmar Unified first purchased an Automatic External Defibrillator for its middle school campus about four years ago.
“We had a student who had a significant cardiac condition, so it was imperative that we had an AED on campus,” said Komos. “From there it spread like wildfire. We are now covered at all of our sites.”
Komos said that Hilmar Unified now has one AED at each of the elementary sites (Elim Elementary School and Merquin Elementary School), two AEDs at Hilmar Middle School, one at Irwin/Colony High School, and three AEDs at Hilmar High with plans to add another one near the school’s baseball field.
“Our plan is to get more so that we can start sending them to away games with our sports teams,” said Komos. “We are finding that a lot of the schools that our kids play at don’t have AEDs and we want to support them anywhere they go.”
The high school also has an AED Response Team, which is comprised of coaches, teachers and administrators, that takes action in the event of a sudden cardiac arrest. In the event of an emergency, this team responds to the scene with the student’s health and contact information, starts performing CPR, and uses the AED if needed.
“We have this team because the safety of our students is of the utmost importance,” said Komos. “This team is knowledgeable to help and treat someone if at some point they have a cardiac arrest.”
The free screening event is scheduled for April 9 at Hilmar High School. More information — including how to register — as it becomes available can be found at hhs-hilmar-ca.schoolloop.com or viaheartproject.org/screenings.