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After freak accidents, parents renew call for school defibrillators

By Madison Park, CNN
Michael Ellsessar, 16, played hockey, track and field, and football.  He died during a game in November.
Michael Ellsessar, 16, played hockey, track and field, and football. He died during a game in November.
  • Student-athlete collapses after getting hit in the chest, dies from cardiac arrest
  • Parents question why no AEDs in schools, when they're in nursing homes, airports
  • Advocates call for law to put AEDs in every school

(CNN) -- It was the second play of a high school football game. A 16-year-old tight end caught the pass. As he broke free from a defender, he was struck in the chest by another player.

After the play ended, Michael Ellsessar was slow to his feet. As he tried to stand, his legs buckled. He was in cardiac arrest.

Despite getting immediate CPR, Michael died that day on November 15.

Michael's story is all too familiar: A perfectly healthy student-athlete collapses on the field after getting hit in the chest. That first sign of heart trouble is his last -- a freak medical accident that inexplicably ends a young life.

"It was the worst news I ever received," said John Ellsessar, his father. "No parent should bury their child. No 16-year-old should die playing a game they love."

The grief leads to questions. Ellsessar sees automated external defibrillator as something that might have given his son a chance.

"Every school should have one," he said. "If we're losing kids to cardiac arrest because of commotio cordis, we have an opportunity to stop and prevent it. Why shouldn't we be advocating that?"

Commotio cordis occurs if a person gets struck at the right place during a rare moment of the cardiac cycle. The impact disrupts the heart's normal rhythm and puts it into ventricular fibrillation.

Michael Ellsessar, in the center of his family, had an active life, said his father, John Ellsessar, at left.
Michael Ellsessar, in the center of his family, had an active life, said his father, John Ellsessar, at left.

Michael's parents have heard from cardiologists that their son's probable cause of death is commotio cordis. The family from Sutton, Massachusetts, is waiting for the results of further examinations.

In December, a 16-year-old catcher died after being hit in the chest by a pitch during an after-school practice in Paterson, New Jersey, according to police. Thomas Adams, 16, was indoors in the gym practicing when he was struck by a pitch, stood up and said, "I can't breathe," authorities said.

Such accidents occur in high school sports, and some experts say it's critical to have first aid equipment such as an automated external defibrillator, or AED, on the scene.

An AED is a portable, self-contained machine that can shock the heart back into rhythm. The device comes with complete audio instructions, telling a person about placing the electrode patches in specific locations.

For years, parents who've lost children in such heart-related incidents have lobbied Congress to pass a law requiring schools to have AEDs. That measure called the Josh Miller HEARTS Act is backed by the American Heart Association. It passed the House of Representatives in 2009, but never passed the Senate, because of fiscal questions.

AEDs cost between $1,500 to $2,000, leading some to question how practical or useful it would be to have the units for a condition that rarely affects students.

Pitch hits chest, kills teen catcher

"Units cost $1,000 if bought in bulk," said Dr. Terry Gordon, a retired cardiologist, who advocates for the bill. "The cost of transporting a child from the football field to ER is more than $1,000 -- in which time, they could get brain damage. The cost to everyone is in the millions. This is cost-effective."

Based on a count of media stories, Gordon estimates that about 237 children have died of sudden cardiac arrest in schools across America since 2008.

The defibrillators are not only for children, but for staff, teachers and people who use the schools as a community facility in off-hours.

Dr. Paul Chan, who recently wrote an article on AEDs in the Journal of the American Medical Association, said the issue is complex.

Studies show that AEDs are effective, but they tend to be in highly-trafficked area like airports.

"In regards to schools, we hear anecdotal stories of kids collapsing on football field and having cardiac arrests," said Chan. "The challenge is that, it's not clear to me that a portable AED in every school is a cost-effective way of addressing the problem.

"The actual likelihood of cardiac arrest events in a middle school or high school is going to be lower than an airport where you have thousands traveling. In a school, it's the same students. Most of them will never have an event. Their chance of having cardiac events is very low."

Chan said he is not aware of any cost-benefit analysis and he said an AED may not help every heart case, as some people may not respond if they have congenital heart conditions.

But Chan said that lives could be saved if AEDs are more readily available.

"It's certainly plausible, if a defibrillator was around," he said. "It's an emotionally charged issue. The costs, even if it's high, it might be a worthwhile investment -- even if it doesn't happen often at school."

The AEDs should be in every school, said Leah Olverd, who survived a heart attack at the age of 14.

"If someone didn't spend $1,200, I wouldn't be standing here," she said. "I can't imagine putting a price on a child. How could you say these kids aren't worth $1,200?"

In 2006, Olverd, then a high school sophomore, collapsed during volleyball practice. Her coaches shocked her four times using an AED that was available at her school.

"In the beginning, schools would say they didn't want it because of liability," said Olverd, who is now a sophomore at Fordham University. "They were nervous about it. Now, it's a liability to not have it. We should have them all over the place. Not to have an AED is like not having a fire extinguisher."