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National Athletic Training Month is underway, and it is supposed to be about celebrating athletic trainers and the work that they do.

However, in the week before NATM was to kick off, a mother in Washington filed suit against the high school where, seven months earlier, her son had died during a football conditioning session. The session was well-populated with players and coaches but no athletic trainer.

Allen Harris, 16, had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick, that was detected during an autopsy. The condition can make it more difficult for the heart to pump blood, according to the Mayo Clinic website.

The lawsuit alleges he was subjected to multiple wind sprints in excessive heat, but water was denied to the athletes during that first practice of the summer on July 24.

Worse, the coaches present apparently recognized that Harris was having a seizure but did not understand that seizure-like activity is also indicative of cardiac arrest. An assistant coach called 911 but neither he nor any of his colleagues retrieved a nearby AED that may have saved Harris. Instead they did nothing else during the 12 minutes it took for the paramedics to arrive. By then, any hope of resuscitation was gone.

Nearly two decades ago, when I convinced Munster High School administrators of the need for AEDs on campus, I was given only one warning: If it is ever needed, it had better be used.

Having an athletic trainer present, who is better trained than a coach to recognize and treat sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), makes survival more likely. A study of youth sports-related SCA down to the junior high level was published in Sports Health in September. It overwhelmingly demonstrated that the highest survival rate was at the schools where an AED and athletic trainer were both present.

The argument for funding athletic trainers was made in this space just two weeks ago.

The case for funding AEDs has been made here in the past, as well. However, funding — at least at the high school level — should no longer be an issue.

Last month, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) announced that the NFHS Foundation had shipped 600-plus AEDs to high schools and state association offices in 24 states in January. Both the IHSAA (Indiana) and IHSA (Illinois) are members of the NFHS. This followed a similar effort the year before when the foundation distributed an initial 400-plus AEDs.

“No endeavor has been more important and required more resources than our AED project,” said Davis Whitfield, NFHS chief operating officer and president of the NFHS Foundation, in a press release. “The AED project, in addition to other research opportunities, provides resources that help our states and their member schools develop policies and procedures to address the ongoing health and safety concerns in sports and activities, as well as saves lives should a catastrophic event occur during a practice or game.”

The ultimate goal of the NFHS Foundation is for every member school to have an AED. High schools wishing to receive a grant from the NFHS Foundation should contact Angie Hays via email at ahays@nfhs.org.

While having an AED and an athletic trainer in place greatly improve an athlete’s, coach’s, game official’s or fan’s chance of surviving SCA, it is no guarantee. Sometimes those stricken do not survive despite the best efforts of athletic trainers, coaches, bystanders, paramedics and ER personnel.

There are also times, though, when athletic trainers do not live up to expectations.

To prevent such instances, there must be a venue-specific emergency action plan in place. Part of that plan includes the athletic trainer having adequate resources. Then, that plan should be practiced regularly with EMS and other school personnel. Everyone knowing what to do and when to do it eliminates guesswork and makes successful implementation more likely.

As Ben Franklin is credited with saying, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

John Doherty is a licensed athletic trainer and physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at jdoherty@comhs.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.  

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