Last month, Florida Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-Osceola County, filed House Bill 157, which would make two significant improvements to our efforts to keep students healthy. First, it would require that school districts provide at least one hour of cardiopulmonary resuscitation — CPR — training for every high school student. Second, it would require that student-athletes undergo an EKG screening as part of their regular clearance forms for athletic participation.
These two changes will save lives. Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) is the leading cause of death in student-athletes. It strikes quickly and often without warning. Approximately 95 percent of those who die of SCA lose their lives because essential medical intervention, such as CPR or an automated external defibrillator — AED — was not used quickly enough. A child can seemingly be healthy one day and be gone the next.
EKG screenings are the most effective way to find heart conditions that would otherwise go undetected and potentially lead to SCA. Research suggests that EKG screenings can catch two-thirds of the conditions that could lead to SCA. This painless, non-invasive, five-minute test, provided for free at many hospitals can save lives.
Requiring CPR training can save the lives of those with the one-third of conditions that still have the potential to go undetected. In the United States, 39 states already require CPR training in schools because immediate bystander CPR can double or triple an SCA victim’s chance of survival. Every minute intervention is delayed as an SCA victim waits the national average of seven minutes for emergency medical services, their chance of survival decreases by between 7 percent and 10 percent. Requiring just one hour of CPR training in high school potentially will triple a young person’s chance at surviving.
I know firsthand exactly how unexpected these heart conditions can be. When I was 12, I was a seemingly healthy student-athlete in middle school. After my mother saw an advertisement on television for a free EKG screening at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, she signed me up, even though I had never experienced any symptoms.
The screening detected Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a condition that can lead to Sudden Cardiac Arrest. I had cardiac ablation surgery and now have little to no risk of SCA. There is a very real chance that a random screening saved my life.
I got lucky, but no child’s life should rely upon luck. Three years after my surgery, 11-year-old Breanna Vergara passed away suddenly of Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome after suffering SCA at a dance class in Miami. One year after that, Dwayne Mitchell, a seemingly healthy football and basketball player, passed away of Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome two weeks before his graduation from J. Holmes Braddock High School. He was 19. An EKG screening could have saved their lives and their families urge every parent to get one for their child.
We have a lottery for the lives of children in Florida. A lottery where some, like me, are screened and get help, and others get no screening and live with risk of SCA. It’s wrong. Florida House Bill 157 takes a system that currently relies on luck and makes it one grounded in law.
We have seen this work already. Brevard County Public Schools mandated EKG testing for its student-athletes in 2019. Through a public-private partnership with Who We Play For, students received an EKG for just $20 — or for free if they qualified for free or reduced lunch. They found 36 students who required medical intervention. Osceola County did the same and found 17 students who needed intervention.
Florida is ready for this. Getting life-saving screenings shouldn’t depend on where a child lives in the state. We can do this without costing our schools a dime — independent organizations and hospitals are ready to step up and do their part as well.
In the past two years, Texas and Pennsylvania enacted legislation on EKG testing for students. States with similarly large public-school systems as Florida have seen that this is as a serious issue and taken action.
We must do the same. I urge every parent to tell their state legislator to support this bill. Make sure your child’s life is protected by the law, not a toss of the dice.