If we can save just one life ...
At times when the hectic pace of juggling her job and her work with the Play for Jake Foundation can be overwhelming, Julie Schroeder thinks back to why she began the endeavor.
"I don't want anyone to suffer what I suffered," Schroeder said. "It's the worse tragedy a parent can go through. You can't imagine."
On Sept. 25, 2013, Schroeder's son, Jake West, a LaPorte High School junior, collapsed and died during football practice from an undetected heart condition, Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia, which can not be diagnosed without proper screening. Schroeder has since channeled her grief into an awareness campaign, making it her life's mission to educate parents and youth on these hidden dangers.
"It's like having two full-time jobs," said Schroeder, a P.E. teacher at Olive Elementary School in New Carlisle. "A heart condition is not on a parents' radar when their kids are perfectly healthy. It wasn't on mine. I would've given anything to be aware of it. I didn't have that opportunity. I want to give others that peace of mind. There are days when it's really tough, but I have to do it. I feel like I'd be letting my son down, a lot of others down, if I didn't."
Play for Jake received its not-for-profit designation in January 2014. The foundation, consisting of Schroeder, developmental partner Dan Bigg and a cadre of volunteers, was formed in May 2016,
"I like to work with anyone who has the passion I have," Schroeder said. "This is all new to me. I've never done anything like this before. I didn't know what to expect, but it's turned out really well."
Schroeder's cellphone remains the contact point for the foundation, which is housed in her downtown LaPorte home. The lower level is adorned with memories of West, photos, newspaper clippings, athletic gear and an orange flag with his iconic No. 26 from football.
"It kind of fell into our laps," Schroeder said. "We thought we would move when Jake went to college. After it happened, walking by his bedroom at the top of the stairs every day was really difficult. This gave us separation, which was needed. There are times when I still wonder why — he would have been 21 now — but my faith is strong and that gets me through the dark days. I was blessed to have him for 17 years."
Play for Jake was initially affiliated with Young Hearts for Life, but Schroeder knew they would eventually need to team with an Indiana-based entity to gain traction. They did so by forging a partnership in September 2016 with the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital and St. Vincent Medical Group in Indianapolis and pediatric cardiologist Sanjay Parikh.
Screenings have been done at LaPorte, New Prairie, Bremen and Niles (Michigan) high schools for roughly 3,800 students. Both an EKG and an echocardiogram are done to provide greater detail of the heart. Play for Jake has also become part of a pilot study through Duke University, a collaboration that will enable them to follow the same protocol in collecting screening data.
Over 30 children were flagged for potential concerns with one recommended for a follow-up. Privacy laws preclude Schroeder from receiving specific information but the data validates the efforts.
"It's worth the hard work," she said. "It's frustrating at times. There's only so much time, I can't give 100 percent to both (school and the foundation). I'll reach out to somebody, hey, can you help out with this? Everybody helps, but I'm his mom, I have to have my hands in everything."
Schroeder is in talks with a number of schools about hosting a screening and hopes to have a few scheduled for the spring.
"It takes quite a bit of planning," she said. "Having them at the school is the only way to get a large number interested. You're not going to get many people to go to a hospital if they don't know anything is wrong."
A Play for Jake golf outing is held each summer and the foundation's network continues to expand through its website, playforjake.org. There are Play for Jake clubs at both Indiana and Purdue. Chloe James, a student trainer at the practice when West collapsed, is president of the IU club and will be passing the torch to fellow Slicers Kyra Nelson and Gabby Harris. Emily Nowak, another LaPorte graduate, is president of the Purdue club, which recently purchased two defibrillators for the university through a fund raiser.
There have also been restaurant giveback nights and Saturday, a group of New Prairie students will host a dance marathon at the LaPorte Civic Auditorium with part of the proceeds to be channeled to the foundation.
"A lot of them knew Jake, what a kindhearted kid he was," Schroeder said. "I'm very blessed to have the support of family and friends. I get emails, letters to this day, stories of how he did this, said this. He was such a strong force, so full of life."
It helps keep the candle burning brightly for Schroeder as the foundation continues to pick up steam.
"I miss him. I wish he was here," Schroeder said. "But I think a family taking a tragedy and using it to help others is really powerful."