Seeking Education After Tragedy
Updated: Feb 8
Matthew was a fit, active 16-year-old boy. He enjoyed school and loved sports, especially snowboarding and soccer. He went to school healthy and happy on a regular September day.
The first hint his parents had that anything might be wrong with him was when they received a phone call from his school telling them Matthew had collapsed. They heard someone in the background say ‘CPR’ and they rushed to the school to find police and paramedics attending and performing CPR on Matthew. He received his first shock from an AED administered by the attending medics approximately seven minutes after collapsing. Matthew later passed away in hospital, despite the best efforts of all the staff.
“Matthew never had a heart murmur. He never had a racing heart. These are things that I almost wish he had had because then they might've looked a little deeper”
– Matthew’s mom, Melinda
Matthew’s story is devastating, but what’s most galling is that he didn’t receive a shock from an AED until the emergency services arrived. In fact, there were four AEDs at Matthew’s school, with one unit only around a two-minute walk away. It’s too much, and too pointless to wonder whether the outcome would have been different if someone had delivered a shock sooner, but it certainly raises a question:
Why didn’t they use an AED?
Matthew’s parents believe if anything can be learned from this tragedy, it’s that more training is needed with AED programs in general, and in schools specifically.
“It doesn’t matter if you know why someone collapsed; just always grab an AED, if one is nearby. All you have to do is get the AED, place the pads on the victim, and let the machine decide if it needs to be used or not. That’s how easy it is to use an AED - you don’t have to be a medical professional to use it.”
- Darla Varrenti, Nick of Time Foundation.
With AEDs, the only thing people really need to know is that they should use them. CPR training is essential and increasingly offered by schools, and is now a prerequisite for graduation in many states, including in Washington, where Matthew is from.
A chance for everyone to handle an AED at CPR training, to familiarize themselves and feel confident that they know how to use one is hugely beneficial, but the main thing to learn about AEDs is that they walk you through the life-saving steps. Thanks to step-by-step instructions, AEDs are simple to use. The AED does vastly more good than harm and thus should be used. Good Samaritan laws ensure that you cannot be blamed if it doesn’t deliver a “shock,” you will not be liable for trying to save someone, and you just might save a life.
"The reason why AEDs are in our schools is because we do not want people to wait for the first responders. We want them to be the first responders.”
It’s great that Matthew’s school made an effort to provide AEDs, and it’s tragic that he died. It’s no one’s fault, and we can never really know if delivering an earlier shock would have changed anything. What we can learn from this is that something broke down, and whether that was communication or confidence, it certainly wasn’t competence or capability; AEDs can be used by anyone with limited training.
Maybe no one thought to bring one – forgetting something in a panic is very human – or maybe people weren’t sure what they were, or what to do with them. Whatever it was, the solution is clear: education.
The equipment is there. Spread the word. An AED shouldn’t be some arcane piece of specialist equipment that people are frightened to handle. It should be the first thing you grab if you’re called to a medical emergency. If schools can only drill it into the students there, then a whole generation of young people will be that much better equipped to deliver potentially life-saving care in an emergency.
“That's why I share Matthew’s story, because it's not enough to have AEDs in the school or in your business or anywhere. It's not enough. You have to have an emergency action plan, and you have to practice that plan,” shares Melinda.
Could this have been prevented?
Matthew’s death was attributed to Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). HCM can be detected with quick, inexpensive and non-invasive testing; an electrocardiogram (EKG) is very telling, along with an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart), of whether or not someone has HCM. These aren’t typically tests that would be performed on healthy kids, and have never historically been part of any pediatric health checks. Stories like Matthew’s are changing this, however. Organizations like the Nick of Time Foundation screening project are going into schools and offering routine heart health checks for students. These programs are helping to identify young people at risk of cardiac problems and refer them to specialists for life-saving treatment and management.
“If Matthew had had an EKG we would have been able to do something. And that's what I tell parents: you want to know if there's an issue because 99% of the time they can do something about it and they can go right back out and play the sports that they love and go on with life.”
Matthew’s parents, Melinda and Jerry, with admirable resilience, strength and pragmatism, have used their experience to try and help others through sharing their story, fundraising, and volunteering at screening programs. They’ve been overwhelmed by the response and outpouring of help and funds from their community, and with help from the Nick of Time Foundation they’ve been able to establish a fund which has successfully delivered AEDs to 36 schools in the Edmonds School District.
Time is of the essence in a cardiac arrest, and so the AEDs have been deployed with special attention to accessibility. The aim is to have an AED available within a very short distance of any point within a school, even if this means there needs to be several within one campus.
The Nick of Time Foundation has devoted time and energy into making cardiac screening programs successful, and they’ve done this by helping to make them fun: keeping teenagers engaged and focused on health isn’t always easy, and pitching education to a diverse group of students requires a special ability to combine a light-hearted approach with an awareness of the great importance of the screening. Melinda and Jerry both volunteer at Nick of Time youth heart screenings which is a wonderful way to honor their son’s memory.
To learn more about Nick of Time’s upcoming calendar of events, visit https://nickoftimefoundation.org/events/
For implementing an AED Program, visit: https://nickoftimefoundation.org/implementing-an-aed-program/
To learn more about how ECG screening can help identify hereditary, structural, or electrical cardiac disorders associated with sudden cardiac death, visit: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/51/9/704
For more on Matthew’s story, visit: https://www.heraldnet.com/news/edmonds-teens-death-prompts-call-for-awareness/