Community & Current Events

How AEDs can save children with heart disease

Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

How AEDs can save children with heart disease

Like most Canadian kids, Chase McEachern loved hockey. The 11-year-old boy from Barrie, Ont., who learned to skate at age three, played left wing for the Vaughan Kings of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, and religiously watched NHL games, rooting for his favourite player, Sidney Crosby. He even drew a rink on his desk at home – complete with centre ice, the red line and the blue lines. But Chase was also a kid with a heart problem.

In October 2005, his heart rate soared to 160 beats per minute after a football game. Doctors at The Hospital for Sick Children (also called SickKids) in Toronto shocked Chase's heart to correct the abnormal rhythm.

In an effort to determine why Chase was experiencing spikes in his heart rhythm, doctors hooked him up to a wearable heart monitor for multiple 24-hour periods for two months. The diagnosis was an atrial flutter – and it meant an end to his hockey-playing days.

In November, Chase watched Jiri Fischer, a defenceman with the Detroit Red Wings, collapse on the bench after going into cardiac arrest during a game. The team's training staff resuscitated him at the scene using CPR and an automated external defibrillator (AED), a portable device that can send an electric shock to the heart. Chase wondered aloud to his parents, John and Dorothy: "What would happen if that happened to me?"

"Chase wanted everyone to know that cardiac arrest is not something that happens only to older people," John recalls, "and how important it is to have AEDs in sports facilities."

To get the word out, his son wrote a letter to Don Cherry, cohost of "Hockey Night in Canada," in hopes that the hockey icon would read it on air in February for Heart Month, but he never had a chance to send it. Chase's parents found the letter on his desk and sent it while their son was in a coma at SickKids.

Page 1 of 4 -- Discover how an automated external defibrillator could have saved Chase's life on page 2
How AEDs help
Chase had collapsed during gym class, and there was no defibrillator on-site. At 11 a.m. on Feb. 9, 2006, the school secretary phoned Dorothy, a dental hygienist, and John, an investigator at Toronto's Woodbine Entertainment Group. Dorothy headed to the local hospital while John dashed to the school to find paramedics working on his son.

Chase was stabilized, but had been without oxygen for too long and suffered severe brain damage. While Chase was in the hospital in London, Ont., his family stayed by his side and a steady stream of schoolmates visited.

A nurse suggested the kids take handprints and footprints from Chase as a way to think of the bright boy who learned math using hockey statistics and studied French in the car with his mom on the way to hockey practice.

"It was so moving to watch these young kids being so gentle with Chase," Dorothy remembers. She and her husband watched as they lifted Chase's hands, covered them with finger paint and pressed them against their hospital gowns, leaving a series of colourful prints behind.

Six days after Chase collapsed, his parents and brother, Cole (then nine), met with doctors to discuss taking him off the respirator. It was a decision no parent would ever want to make. Cole suggested that it should happen at 3:30 p.m. "Why then?" his parents asked. "That's what time school ends," he said.

After Chase died on Feb. 15, 2006, Don Cherry received his letter, which his parents had sent. He took up Chase's cause and lobbied on his radio show and "Hockey Night in Canada" for more defibrillators in public places. He also phoned Dorothy.

"He was touched by Chase's letter and promised he would help us get the word out about making AEDs more available," she says. "He isn't the rough-and-tough guy you see on TV. He's very softhearted."

Page 2 of 4 -- Chase's tragic story inspired a movement to help others who suffer from heart conditions. Read all about it on page 3
Chase inspires a movement
Chase's parents initially thought they would set up a foundation in their son's name in an effort to make public defibrillators mandatory.

In March 2006, just after what would have been Chase's 12th birthday, Rocco Rossi, then CEO of the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Ontario, offered to support a Chase McEachern Tribute Fund, backed by the considerable resources of the organization.

The campaign has gathered momentum over the past six years, culminating in the Chase McEachern Act in 2007 (which exempts anyone using an AED from liability when attempting to help someone) and a $10 million investment from the Ontario government, announced in June 2011, to put AEDs in public settings across the province and develop an AED registry. To date, more than 3,000 units have been placed in Ontario and at least 39 lives have been saved.

"At first, it was an uphill battle to change attitudes," says John. "Some school boards didn't see the need to spend money on a $3,000 defibrillator. We put in fire extinguishers to protect buildings," says John, "but defibrillators need to be there to protect people. Chase put a face on the need for defibrillators. People know his face, his story…and he helped boost awareness."

Dorothy adds: "I always knew that Chase would do something special. I just didn't know it would be this."

John remembers a conversation he had with Chase around the kitchen table. "I was talking about how the lack of money and the politics might be stumbling blocks for getting more defibrillators in public places," says John. "Chase just looked at me and said, ‘Dad, we just have to get it done.'"

Page 3 of 4 -- Learn how AEDs work on page 4

AEDs: What you need to know
You can usually find automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in wall-mounted cabinets. But finding one will become more efficient as provinces such as Ontario and Manitoba create registries that list the location of each unit. (Currently field experts place the devices, not a centralized body.)

AEDs can be purchased through organizations like St. John Ambulance and cost anywhere from $1,350 to $3,000. The Lifepak series devices perform self-diagnostic tests once a week that check the machine and the battery.

Pads should be replaced every two years or after each use (whichever comes first). Customers receive a reminder call three months before the batteries and electrodes need to be replaced. Otherwise, each device has its own way of signalling that it's time for new batteries, similar to a car's fuel light coming on before the tank is empty.

Using an AED
Automated external defibrillators (AEDs) offer step-by-step verbal instructions and/or visual diagrams. "The machines can do no harm," says Andrew Lotto, manager of Resuscitation Programs at the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Ontario. And neither can you if you use one. AEDs assess the heart's rhythm and administer a shock only if the heart needs it.

Canadian Red Cross and St. John Ambulance, as well as the Heart & Stroke Foundation, offer combination CPR-AED courses.

Certification courses start at $30 and involve anywhere from three-and-a-half to 16 hours of in-class insturction and hands-on training. There's no minimum age for the Heart & Stroke course, but participants should be physically able to deliver two minutes of full-depth chest compressions.

The Heart & Stroke Foundation also offers community-based awareness courses (without certificate) and a CPR Anytime training kit.


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This story was originally titled "Life Saver" in the October 2012 issue.

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How AEDs can save children with heart disease

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