Patti Bacchus: Why schools should have life-saving AEDs

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      An Oliver, B.C., high-school student’s cardiac arrest last week could have been heartbreaking tragedy, but instead he’s recovering in hospital and heading home soon, thanks to two quick-thinking high-school teachers and someone’s forward-looking decision to supply automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) to schools in his district.

      The Grade 8 student collapsed after gym class as he went into cardiac arrest. Luckily, teachers Steve Podmorow and Mike Russo, who is also a volunteer firefighter, had the training and equipment to respond quickly and saved the boy’s life using CPR and the school’s AED, which guides first responders through audio instructions.

      Okanagan-Similkameen school district superintendent Beverly Young told me this week the 13-year-old is recovering in Children's Hospital and will be returning home soon. While he may need some follow-up surgery, she said it was a great outcome.


      What a relief that must be for the boy’s family, and how happy Podmorow and Russo must be they were able to save the young student’s life. What wonderful news for all the student's classmates, especially those who witnessed his cardiac arrest. Imagine the horror they could have witnessed if a classmate had died before their eyes.

      Should all schools have AEDs?

      This story could have had a much different, sadder ending if there hadn’t been an AED at hand. I don’t know all the details of the incident, but I know the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation estimates the use of an AED, combined with CPR, may increase survival rates by up to 75 percent.

      Cardiac arrests (CAs) strike people of all ages, including kids and teens, and can come without warning. They’re triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart that causes an irregular heartbeat. When the heart's pumping action is disrupted, blood flow to the brain, lungs, and other organs ceases. Within seconds, someone in CA loses consciousness and has no pulse. Without treatment, death occurs in minutes.

      The electrical disturbances that cause CAs can be sparked by athletic activity or from an impact, electrocution, or even choking. People who have CAs may have heart abnormalities that are often undiagnosed prior to the cardiac arrest.

      Parents and students are lobbying for AEDS in schools

      Last spring, a Richmond, B.C. student lobbied his local school board to install and AED at McNair Secondary but didn’t get support from his school board. It says they only support AEDs in schools when there’s a student who specifically needs them due to a known medical condition but otherwise not, since there’s no legislation or requirement to have them. 


      The parents who attended a Vancouver School Board (VSB) committee meeting last March didn’t get support from that board either. Instead, VSB managers laid out their case for not supplying AEDs in school. I was there observing and was surprised at how one-sided the staff report was (click this link and scroll down to see it) compared to the usual professional presentations of various pros and cons and costs. Those at the meeting got a management’s case against providing AEDs in schools, highlighting the fact that there is no federal, provincial, or WorkSafeBC requirement to provide schools with AEDs and that the provincial and local health officers don’t recommend AEDs for all schools.

      The VSB report concluded that there’s “no established evidence of a survival benefit in this setting (schools) with the addition of AEDs” and that they “could see the harm outweigh the good” due to “significant opportunity costs”.

      This is a terribly—and potentially tragically—flawed argument, but the trustees chose to take accept the report and its dubious conclusions.

      Fortunately, other B.C. school districts, including New Westminster, West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Coquitlam, Powell River, Fraser Cascade, Sunshine Coast, and Comox Valley are taking the opposite approach to that of the VSB and Richmond and providing their schools with AEDs. Good on them.

      AEDs are much less expensive than they used to be—at about $1,200 a unit—and if the B.C. Heart and Stroke Foundation had its way, they’d be as common as fire extinguishers in public buildings.

      Make it a requirement to have AEDs in all schools

      Given the resistance from large B.C. school boards like the VSB and Richmond, and mounting evidence that AEDs save lives and prevent brain damage, it’s time to make AEDS mandatory in schools and to provide funding to purchase and maintain them. That direction and support needs to come from the provincial government, perhaps as a joint initiative between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education.

      The Heart and Stroke Foundation is calling for provincial legislation to have AEDs in public places, and I couldn’t agree more.

      The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, says her office “continues to work with the Heart and Stroke Foundation to review evidence on AEDs in schools and public locations” but also says her office has “reviewed the evidence and found AEDs are rarely needed in a school setting“.

      She may be right that they’re “rarely” needed, but if someone I loved (or anyone, actually) went into cardiac arrest, I’d sure want there to be an AED nearby. Fire extinguishers are rarely needed either, but we have them on hand anyway. Heck, I rarely crash my car, but I wear a seatbelt every time I get in it.

      Some school trustees are showing leadership and the rest should too

      As a trustee facing a difficult decision, I always considered what I’d want for my own children when I was voting on decisions that affected other people’s kids. If one of mine had a cardiac arrest at school, I’d want there to be an AED close by to give them the best chance of surviving. I want the same for all kids. I want every cardiac arrest that happens at a school to have the same great outcome they had in Oliver last week.

      School trustees in several B.C. school districts are demonstrating the kind of leadership that puts kids first by providing their schools with life-saving AEDs. The VSB, Richmond, and other lagging school boards need to take note and follow suit.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.