Sunday, October 14, 2001

Smithtown Is Among Districts Turning To Defibrillators For Emergencies

By Bill Kaufman

October 14, 2001

LAST YEAR, Northport High School freshman lacrosse goalie Louis Acompora, 14, died after being hit in the chest by a ball, a tragedy that later caused his family to publicly call for automated external defibrillators to be on hand at athletic events.

Equally tragic was the 1999 death of Eric Sopracasa, a former Sachem High School lacrosse champ who was also struck in the chest with a ball while practicing with his team at the University of Massachusetts.

Aware of the rare but possible risk, an increasing number of Long Island school districts are getting the devices and training staffers and students in their use.

One is the Smithtown district, where the high school Booster Club recently bought six new defibrillators for $2,600 each, as a gift. The district had only one unit previously.

Now there are two of the portable lifesavers stationed at the high school, one at the freshman campus, two at the middle school and two at Great Hollow Middle School. The units are similar to ones carried by virtually every Suffolk police car, with officers trained in their use.

In Acompora's case, death was attributed to a lethal cardiac arrythmia brought on by the blow. Experts report that if an object strikes a person's chest at the wrong moment in the cardiac cycle, this rare event can occur. The only way such a victim can stand a chance of survival is to be electronically shocked into a normal rhythm by the defibrillator.

"Most coaches are already trained and certified in both CPR and using the [defibrillator]," said Nicholas Schroeder, Smithtown physical education and athletics coordinator. "Some of the secondary school nurses have also received the training." By next month, he said, all physical education teachers, coaches and others will be involved in training.

"We hope to teach our health education classes throughout the district about use [of the unit] and availability," Schroeder said. He added that students enrolled in first-aid and CPR electives will soon also receive the American Red Cross training and certification.

The district requires a unit to be instantly available for use in the afternoons during lacrosse and soccer practice and while games are being played. The rule is also being considered for other sports, such as baseball. A prime mover in approving funds for the devices was school board member Susan Moriarty, who said a group of concerned parents had approached her about procuring them.

"When I brought the request for defibrillators to the board of education, it was warmly received and unanimously approved," Moriarty said. "With our ever-increasing student and staff population, I felt these units were very much needed."

Schools superintendent Charles A. Planz said, "This enhances the quality of health and safety for children and adults in the district." Planz said the units are "user friendly" and are an "insurance policy if someone goes into cardiac arrest." He emphasized that the devices are a safety measure not just for student athletes but for everyone.

For some students the presence of the devices seems to be a confidence-building measure. "I see our trainer with the defibrillator every day on the practice field, and it makes you feel that if something should occur you are in the safest possible situation," said Michael Petrucci, 16, a soccer and lacrosse player at Smithtown High School.

"I'm here every day in every season, and the trainer always has that yellow box with him in reach," said Petrucci's classmate, Ashley Grzetic, 16, referring to the box containing the defibrillator. "It makes me feel that someone is ready for any problem."

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