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New state law protects student athletes from cardiac arrest

As Alabama student athletes take to the field and the courts in the coming weeks, a new law will require K-12 schools to air on the side of caution. The Sudden Cardiac Arrest Prevention Act will go into effect this school year. The law requires all school coaches receive CPR and Automated External Defibrillator (AED) training every two years. Coaches and trainers must also present an educational briefing to their athletes on the signs, symptoms and treatments of sudden cardiac arrest before game season begins. If any coach or trainer violates the mandated training and protocols, then they will lose their ability to coach.

Sudden cardiac arrest, or SCA, is the sudden loss of heartbeat and heart activity. It is not the same thing as a heart attack, which is when blood flow to the heart is severely limited or blocked. According to Mayo Clinic, researchers suggest 1 in 50,000 to 80,000 young athletes die from SCA each year.

“This bill is really to protect the athlete and make the coaches aware that this is very prevalent in today’s society, and you’re going to see it,” said State Rep. Jeremy Gray (D-Opelika), who sponsored the bill. “I didn’t see it much growing up, or through my athletic career, but we’ve seen it more recently, each and every day. It’s becoming a thing. It’s the leading cause of death [among] student athletes.”

It is not just coaches getting schooled. Families are also given a form describing the risks of SCA and must sign off on this notice before their child can play in any school sport. In addition, if a student suffers from SCA or a similar cardiac episode during a school game, they must be cleared by a physician before participating in the sport again.

“It gives parents so many ways to make sure they’re doing everything they can to prevent it,” Gray said. “It’s important because, as a parent, you want to be aware of what's going on at all times with your child. You want to be able to know, just like with the protocol for concussions. For a long time, we didn't know how prevalent concussions were, how often athletes got concussion or [their] long-term effects. Sudden cardiac arrest is the same thing. For the majority of the world, this is something new.”

SCA made headlines twice this year for its impact on young athletes. Buffalo Bills safety and 25-year-old athlete Damar Hamlin suffered from cardiac arrest in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals this January. Just last month, college basketball player Bronny James, son of LeBron James, collapsed during a summer practice due to cardiac arrest. James is 18 years old.

Gray said Damar Hamlin’s experience with SCA encouraged him to get to work.

“When it was brought my attention, I was moved to want to be an advocate for this,” he said. “We watch student athletes [and] professional athletes every day. They make our Saturday’s, Sunday’s and Friday nights. I think that we need to be accountable [in] making sure that they're safe, as they're playing this gladiator sport and entertaining us for our pleasure. I thought it was my job, being a former athlete, to lead the way in that. I just took it upon myself to get it passed.”

However, Gray said this was not his only source of inspiration. Simon’s Heart is a nonprofit based in Pennsylvania that raises awareness on cardiac arrest among youth through legislation, CPR and AED training and heart screenings. The organization reached out to Gray directly, prompting him to spearhead a Sudden Cardiac Arrest Prevention Act in Alabama.

“They reached out to me and said Alabama needs to make sure coaches are given the training they need. I didn’t actually know coaches did training regularly when it came to sudden cardiac prevention,” Gray said. “They showed me [that] states like Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and surrounding areas passed legislation or implementation of making sudden cardiac prevention training a regular, recurring thing. That’s what prompted me to bring this bill.”

Gray said he has also received encouragement from the National Football League, the same sports league that hosts the Buffalo Bills.

“The NFL reached out, wanting me to advocate not only for training but that coaches are going through CPR [training], AED training and that schools have an emergency action plan,” he said.

Alabama is now one of 18 states to practice some form of cardiac arrest prevention law for student athletes. The law was dedicated to Tyrell Spencer, a former Huntsville native who died from SCA in 2010. He was 18 years old. Gray said he hopes the law will help prevent SCA and mitigate its impact should it happen.

“Being a part of this [effort] for a year, I've heard so many stories from parents where their kid had an episode, their kid passed away or they've been trying to get legislation like this passed, but they couldn't get anyone to be an advocate for them,” he said. “On the national level, you see Congress is even trying to put something in place with AEDs and making sure that they're deployed throughout the states… I hope that anytime there’s an episode, we have less deaths. I just want to lessen the risks. We don't want any other situation where a kid dies from this.”

The law has authority under the Alabama High School Athletic Association and the Alabama Independent School Association. This means the legislation will apply to all public and private K-12 schools and school sports in the state. While Gray said this is a major milestone for athlete protections across Alabama, this is still not enough.

Gray is pushing to increase school access to AEDs, or Automated External Defibrillators. AEDs help athletes and others who have suffered from cardiac arrest outside of a hospital or medical setting. Gray said his goal is to have AEDs within a three-minute distance of any school sports game in the state.

“AEDs [defibrillators] are going to be the most important thing,” he said. “Making sure that we can get defibrillators deployed to those who need them, especially in rural and Title I schools. Sometimes in the spring, you have 10 or 12 spring sports going on at one time. Do we have enough [AEDs]? [We need] to have AEDs being deployed and in a three-minute retrieval time, so, if an episode does happen, [we’re] prepared.”

Though Gray has support from the NFL and others, the defibrillators initiative will require additional funding from the Alabama Legislature. This year’s state legislative session ended June 6.

Joshua LeBerte is a news intern for Alabama Public Radio.
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