Sunday, February 17, 2008

Grass-Roots AED Group Walks the Corridors of Power

By Robert Davis, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - In the hall outside of her congressional office, Rep. Betty Sutton of Ohio calls fellow Democratic congressman Mike Michaud of Maine over to meet her grass-roots posse.

"Mike," she says, "I have some people I want you to meet."

Sutton is championing a bill that would give matching federal money to provide every U.S. school with an automated external defibrillator (AED), a device that can jump-start a heart that has stopped beating. To help her cause, Sutton has assembled a politically powerful team.

She introduces Michaud to her cohorts — an inspired cardiologist, a teenage girl revived by an AED and a grieving father whose loss has translated into many lives saved — all of them going door to door to pitch other members of Congress.

It's an uphill battle, because her bill, H.R. 4926, is just one of more than 500 items on an Education and Labor subcommittee's to-do list

Michaud shakes hands, smiles and seems genuinely moved as he hears about the teenage lives lost and the others saved that inspired the legislation Sutton introduced.

The bill is named after Josh Miller, a 15-year-old boy from Sutton's hometown of Barberton, Ohio, who died from a cardiac arrest at his high school football game.

After Michaud, who is one of 39 co-sponsors of the bill, says goodbye, it's time for the team to go to a series of scheduled visits.

"All right, go get 'em," Sutton says as she watches them walk away. "Some of the people you are going to meet are already on board. They just don't know it yet"

Over the course of an afternoon, the group will sit on some leather furniture in spacious offices with politicians who are generous with their time. They appear to have endless patience, despite the distractions of ringing phones, blinking e-mails and buzzers calling the members to the floor to cast votes.

The group also will cram into tiny corners of packed offices, talking with young staffers who actually know how to use the defibrillators mounted in the halls.

On each stop there comes a moment when something seems to click for the members of Congress or their staffers. Facial expressions change. They reach for a pen and start writing details.

For some it was when John Acompora told how his 14-year-old son, Louis, died playing lacrosse on Long Island.

For others, it was when 16-year-old Leah Olverd talked about being saved by a defibrillator that had been placed in her school because of Louis' death.

Others appear to be moved by cardiologist Terry Gordon, who quotes both the Bible and the Quran to say that the world can be changed by saving just one life.

For Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the moment comes after he "saves" Olverd with the defibrillator trainer, a device the group brought into his office.

In the middle of the pitch to Scott's staffers over the office's front counter, the congressman walks in.

"We started a grass-roots effort in New York," Acompora explains. "Because of Louis' law, every school in New York must have a defibrillator. There have been 38 lives saved. Leah was No. 25."

Back in Sutton's office later, Olverd cries when she hears Acompora describing the loss of his son.

"That could have been me," she says, had a defibrillator not been on hand when the Bethpage High School sophomore class president collapsed during volleyball tryouts in August 2006. "That could have been my parents."

Toward the end of the day, she says her civics lesson has left her encouraged that the bill will become a law. "It's illogical for them to say no."

Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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