Empowering children with life-saving knowledge
Those of us who are fortunate enough to spend our professional lives working with children off all ages benefit from their endless supply of energy and emotion, at times only a trickle, though frequently, a deluge. While the trials of the COVID-19 pandemic have waxed and waned in the background, the questions and concerns regarding health and safety over the past three years have certainly been ever-present. In the aftermath of the sudden cardiac arrest experienced by Damar Hamlin, presented live to millions of viewers on Monday Night Football and replayed millions of times over in the following days and weeks, kids throughout the country were reminded of yet another potential threat.
As part of my role as medical director of Project Adam Indiana, I have the opportunity to work with schools and their students in creating a designated “Heart Safe School.” On a Friday two weeks following Mr. Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, a team of students, teachers, and staff completed a sudden cardiac arrest drill in which they demonstrated an emergency response complete with basic life support (BLS) and use of an automated external defibrillator (AED). This response drill delivered nearly 1000 chest compressions and three external defibrillations prior to EMS arrival just over 7 minutes later. Had this event been not been a drill, their efforts would have been life-changing, if not lifesaving.
The beauty of these drills lay in their manifold benefits. Of course, they emphasize the importance and benefits of community/lay BLS training and familiarity with AEDs, their function, and demonstrating the need for practice if one is going to be effective when called upon (akin to fire drills). An added value, however, comes with the kids taking ownership of these terrible events and performing heroism.
In the backdrop of fear and uncertainty, they are empowered and trained to do good.
Following the drill the students debriefed the experience with their teacher, school nurse, and other staff. In typical fashion, they were far more critical of their performance than anyone else. But the criticism was all constructive; they wanted to make their performance better. This is in stark contrast to required activities lacking resonance with students.
Additional time was spent with our program coordinator (who is a licensed paramedic, life support trainer, and trauma expert). They each took turns using the trainer AED proving time and again that its operational complexity was nothing when compared with their phones; devices in their constant use with fluency and rapidity that rivals the typists a century ago. There was visible, well deserved pride among the students (as well as their instructors) in accepting their banner designating their school as Heart Safe. Their work was done well and is in clear display for all to recognize and ultimately to benefit from.
And herein lies the added value. The energy and creativity students bring to learning new ideas and skills is much more easily translated to other students. The hope is that with each heart safe school, a nucleus of students will spread the wealth of safety throughout student body. Faster than their parents may want, the students will move on to adulthood and take these skills to their new communities.
Notably, this community already experienced this benefit just a week prior to our visit when a recent graduate used their training at a local athletic event, effectively saving the life of a spectator.
In the coming weeks we have plans to designate the first heart safe elementary school in the state of Indiana. This is particularly exciting as we recognize that even the youngest school age children can help along the chain of survival. The normalization of seeking and obtaining help by calling emergency services, knowing the location of the closest AED, and assisting adults will make teaching and training BLS and AED use in older children just another step in maturing and school responsibility rather than something new and different. Moreover, these kids will share their activities with their parents, siblings, extended family, and community.
Nearly one month after Damar Hamlin gave us all pause, there are students throughout Indiana and in over half of the states in the US learning BLS and importantly, practicing these skills with an AED on-site, turning that pause into positive action, making Project ADAM Heart Safe schools. It is their commitment to our communities and our future that we will continue to support and give thanks.
Adam C. Kean, MD, MPH, FHRS
Associate Professor of Clinical Pediatrics
Indiana University School of Medicine
Division of Pediatric Cardiology
Adjunct Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering
IUPUI School of Engineering and Technology