Sunday, April 22, 2012

A race against time


One important skill — CPR — was as responsible as any for saving 11-year-old player.
Published 11:11 p.m., Saturday, April 21, 2012
  • View from the pitcher's mound at Cook Park little league "majors" field in Colonie April 18, 2012.   (John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union) Photo: John Carl D'Annibale / 00017305A
    View from the pitcher's mound at Cook Park little league "majors" field in Colonie April 18, 2012. (John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union)

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Brian Manion, the co-president of South Colonie Youth Baseball, put $2,000 on his personal credit card Tuesday to buy his league a defibrillator.
"I'm sure they'll figure out how to reimburse me later," he said. "I just thought we needed to do this now."
Goldstock's, the sporting goods store in Scotia, sold out its entire stock of "heart guard" shirts, or padded undershirts marketed to protect children from blows to the chest.
Ditto for Play it Again Sports in Latham.
"Tons!" a sales associate said when asked how many heart guard shirts had been sold since Monday evening, when an 11-year-old Colonie Little League player nearly died at home plate after being hit in the chest with a pitch.
The story had a happy ending. Many don't. In youth leagues areawide, the near tragedy at Cook Park has jolted parents and coaches, sending them scrambling to ensure we don't test the odds again.
That's a good thing — but only so long as we're not misdirecting our energy toward unproven solutions or, worse, begetting fear and hysteria without cause.
What we really need to do is take a deep breath.
Because there is a very easy way to dramatically improve the safety of our playing fields, without spending a dime.
First, a little perspective: Most of us never had heard of commotio cordis before Monday, and that's because it happens only a handful of times each year, affecting a minuscule percentage of the millions who play youth sports.
Of course, that doesn't diminish the consequences for victims' families. Somewhere between 65 and 90 percent of commotio cordis cases end in tragedy. A 12-year-old lacrosse player from Rochester died just this past February.
Commotio cordis happens when a spherical object strikes a specific part of the heart at a precise fraction of a second between beats. The result is cardiac arrest.
But even if we understand what can turn a Little League fastball deadly, we're much less certain about what can make it safe.
Using swine that were placed under anesthesia and then fitted with heart guard shirts, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment has tested most of the products now flying off the shelves of local sporting good stores.
The results: There's no proof they're effective.
"As a general rule, there's no scientific evidence that any of those products provide less protection or more protection," said Mike Oliver, the NOCSAE's executive director.
More worrisome, the research showed some of the shirts may actually increase the chances of commotio cordis.
How? For reasons that are unclear, balls traveling faster than 40 miles per hour are less likely to cause commotio cordis than those travelling a little slower.
The padding of the heart guard can take a 70-mile-per-hour fastball and soften the blow enough to create the impact of a 35 mph pitch. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the slower pitch may be more dangerous.
"That was a real surprise to us," Oliver said.
There's another problem: Equipping our kids with gear that's of dubious effectiveness could provide false peace of mind.
Just ask Karen Acompora. Her son Louis died in 2000, at age 14, while playing goalie in a Long Island high school lacrosse game.
"I hear parents say, 'Oh, it's fine, my kid is wearing a chest protector," Acompora said.
"Well," she said, "so was mine."
Soon after their son's death, Karen and her husband, John, became champions of legislation that makes it mandatory for every New York public school to have a defibrillator.
That's important, because a defibrillator offers the best chance of restarting the heart of someone who has suffered commotio cordis.
But Louis's Law, as it's known, doesn't cover recreational leagues, and at a cost of $1,200 to $2,000, defibrillators may fall beyond some leagues' means.
Those leagues still can take a major step toward making all their athletes safer, at virtually no cost.
They can make every single one of their coaches learn CPR.
The lesson takes 15 to 20 minutes, and it can be done simply by watching instructional videos on the American Heart Association's YouTube site.
The Colonie Little League player is alive today because of the terrific teamwork executed by the coaches, first responders and emergency crews.
But if Frank Prevratil, the league president, hadn't begun chest compressions right away, and if Colonie police officer Brian Curran hadn't continued CPR when he arrived on scene, the EMS crew equipped with a defibrillator might not have saved the boy's life.
"In most communities, the first responders all carry some form of a defibrillator," said Bob Elling, a Colonie paramedic who serves on the board of the American Heart Association.
"But in order for the defibrillator to be successful, we really need to prime the pump. We need to start CPR immediately."
Elling has been a paramedic for 35 years.
"I've never once — not once — seen a case where someone survived and there wasn't someone who started CPR before we got there," he said.
The American Heart Association is pushing a law that would make it mandatory for all high school students to learn CPR before graduating.
Even if the last thing schools need is another mandate, surely asking every student to spend one class period learning the proper way to perform chest compressions wouldn't be too burdensome.
"You don't need anything special," Elling said. "There's no special equipment. Anybody could teach the class. You go to a website, watch a video demonstration, borrow a mannequin from the local rescue squad and have each student try the compressions.
"That's it. One class period."
We never can create enough rules or pass enough laws or develop enough safety equipment to remove all the danger from sports.
But we all can — and should — invest the 20 minutes it takes to be prepared for the worst. It will save lives. An 11-year-old boy is proof. • 518-454-5425 • @peteiorizzo

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