Defibrillators healthy start for athlete safety

The Baltimore Sun

The fall sports slate, and indeed, the entire 2006-07 athletic schedule is under way in earnest, but the first big potential save of the year has yet to take place, and it has nothing to do with soccer or field hockey goalies.

That's because school systems around the state are now required to have automated external defibrillators in each high school, and that includes within close proximity to the playing field.

During the last legislative session, the General Assembly passed legislation to bring Maryland into line with states such as New York and New Jersey in requiring the lifesaving apparatus in all high schools.

The Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association already requires its members to have at least one defibrillator at its events.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich signed the measure into law in late April, and school systems have spent the summer getting into compliance with the regulations, which require that a unit be available within 90 seconds.

That has, in some cases, forced some school systems to purchase, at their own expense, as many as seven of the units, which shock the heart back into rhythm after a period of cardiac arrest. And defibrillators don't come cheap; units can range in cost from $1,500 to $2,000 each.

In addition, the schools have had to train personnel to use the devices. In Baltimore and Montgomery counties, for instance, coaches spent part of the summer being trained on the defibrillators, on the theory that there might not be time to summon a trained medical official to the scene of a stricken student, especially within 90 seconds.

In less enlightened times, some might have railed about this program being an unfunded government mandate, where do-gooders at the federal or state level impose a regulation on hapless local officials but don't give them the money to pay for it.

However, we've seen enough young athletes fall into distress in games or in practice to know that anything we can do to save a life is worth it.

Indeed, two years ago, a young Overlea field hockey coach named Jenna Zava saved the life of one of her players, then junior Megan Finn, by performing CPR on her after Finn suffered cardiac arrest during practice. Goodness knows what might have happened had Zava not had sufficient CPR training, but her task might have been made simpler if there had been a defibrillator on the scene.

There is more, of course, that can and should be done. For starters, each prospective athlete's required physical examination should include some level of preliminary cardiac screening. Finn, who was subsequently diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a rare ailment in which the heart muscle becomes too thick to function properly, should never have been cleared to play, and a more thorough physical might have detected her ailment before she became ill.

But that's not enough. We should work for the day when every high school in the state has a trainer or doctor assigned to its athletic program, and not just for football.

It's an ambitious goal, to be sure, and certainly a costly one, but attainable. The bonds between public schools and private industry grow stronger each day, and here's an area where business can help. After all, if the local bank and fast food outlet are willing to pony up cash for lights for football stadiums, they ought to be amenable to setting aside dollars to ensure that kids play healthy.

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