Vicki Gashwiler knows all about the importance of having an automated external defibrillator, or AED, on hand at all times. Her daughter, a student at Cold Springs Elementary, carries one with her everywhere she goes.
“We bought an AED that she carries with her in her backpack when she goes to school,” Gashwiler says. “It’s that important.”
Gashwiler’s daughter – as well as her husband and several other extended family members – have a genetic heart condition called long QT syndrome. One of her sisters-in-law died from the condition seven years ago. Yet Gashwiler considers her family fortunate because the condition has been diagnosed and they are able to actively treat it. Many people, children especially, go about their daily lives unaware that they have a heart condition – that is, until their heart stops.
And that is why it is so important for every school in Missoula to have an AED or two within immediate reach.
When someone’s heart stops, technically, that person is dead. Without blood pumping to the brain and lungs, a person experiencing cardiac arrest will quickly lose consciousness and stop breathing.
AEDs are designed to restore a regular heartbeat by analyzing rhythmic irregularities and administering an electric shock. Most are made to be portable and, most importantly, most are made to be used by the average, untrained bystander.
Nevertheless, Missoula County Public Schools has embarked on a campaign to place AEDs in every one of its schools and provide training on their use for school personnel. It began asking for monetary donations to cover the cost of new AEDs, and for the past several years it has received generous donations from individuals, family members of people who have experienced a heart attack, local businesses, churches and hospitals.
Missoula’s three high schools were the first to get AEDS, and Cold Springs received one as well. There’s one up in Seeley, thanks to a rural access grant, and several others in other Missoula County schools.
But there’s still no device at Paxson, Willard or Jefferson – nor in the school’s business building, administration building or central kitchen. Washington Middle School really ought to have two AEDs, because it has two gyms located at opposite ends of the building.
In fact, every Missoula County school should have at least two AEDs; one to keep at or near the gym, and the other to bring to athletic events. If the goal is to place an AED within three minutes’ reach of an emergency, then Missoula’s going to need a lot more devices.
And that means it’s going to need a lot more community support to close out this campaign.
Missoula, let’s help put two AEDs in every Missoula County Public Schools building. They cost roughly $1,500 each, and if it had the money, MCPS would purchase an additional 19 AEDs. Of course, it will cost a little extra to cover future maintenance – but still, that’s only $30,000 total. That’s so much less than the price of a life.
Nationally, an estimated 250,000 people die from sudden cardiac arrest each year. In recent years, several young people in western Montana have collapsed at sporting events due to previously undiagnosed cardiac conditions.
In 2007, a 17-year-old Bigfork High School student named Jeffrey Bowman collapsed on the first day of football practice. He died a week later. Last October, a cross-country runner from Park High School died after collapsing during the State A meet in Missoula. In Columbia Falls, a sixth-grader recently collapsed from sudden cardiac arrest as well.
On Jan. 4, a Columbia Falls High School freshman collapsed from cardiac arrest during a morning gym class. The life of 16-year-old Cole Brown was saved by the quick action of school nurse Cathy Dragonfly and athletic trainer Troy Bowman, who used an AED located just 20 feet away to get Brown’s heart beating again. It turns out that Brown has an underlying, previously undiagnosed heart condition.
The Columbia Falls School District now counts 10 defibrillators, and recently authorized the purchase of four more.
Missoula County Public Schools include some 8,500 students, in addition to 1,200 staff. Its 21 schools and buildings throughout Missoula are community resources that host countless public events throughout the year. If one of these children or adults experiences sudden cardiac arrest, the presence of an AED can make the difference between life and death. AEDs, when used within a few minutes of cardiac arrest, can increase the odds of survival by up to 90 percent. Given that cardiac arrest affects blood flow to the brain, their use also increases the odds of a more positive neurological outcome for survivors.
That’s worth so much more than $30,000.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are roughly 80,000 adults residing in Missoula County. If even half this number gave even one dollar to MCPS, the district would have more than enough money to purchase more than enough AEDs and provide for their maintenance.
Heck, if even 3,000 people gave $10 each, MCPS could announce that the goal of its years-long campaign had been met.
Let’s do it, Missoula. Let’s save a life.
EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen