WSAZ Investigates | Student Athlete Safety

WSAZ Investigates | Student Athlete Safety
Published: Jun. 23, 2022 at 6:43 PM EDT
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - An underlying heart condition can become fatal on the field or court in seconds. So, how do you catch potential issues before the unthinkable happens? During the last few decades, medical professionals have learned a lot about heart health and what could lead to a catastrophic incident. Life-saving technology is also more readily available now than ever before.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t help those who have already passed away. Players and coaches on the 1997 South Gallia High School baseball team were changed forever after losing a teammate to sudden cardiac arrest. Jack James was the head coach of the Rebels back then and remembers April 2, 1997, all too well.

James fought back tears recalling the death of Patrick Lawrence, who died after a ball struck him in the chest during a game that day.

“He was on second base, and there was a wild pitch,” said James, who was standing in the coaches boxes near third base.

The ball got by the catcher and Lawrence started running toward third base. The catcher threw the ball to the third basemen, but the throw was off target.

“Patrick started to slide and the ball hit him right in the chest,” said James. “He popped up! I turned to him and said, ‘Patrick, are you OK?’ He said, ‘Coach I’m OK!”

James recalls briefly turning to speak to another player before turning back around to speak to Lawrence.

“Next thing I know, I turn around and he’s on the ground,” James said.

Lawrence was taken to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. It was a moment that changed the lives of Lawrence’s family and this teammates on that baseball team. Matthew Bess, one of his teammates, considered Lawrence a great friend. He remembers the moment Coach James addressed the team later that evening.

“He just told us that we had lost him and I’m just like, ‘what do you mean?’ At that age, you can’t process what that means,” Bess said.

Lawrence was only 16 years old when he died. Now, more than 25 years later, Bess still wonders what could have been done to prevent his teammate’s death. Sports medicine physician Dr. Andy Gilliland says keeping athletes safe and preventing sudden cardiac arrest starts with being prepared for the worst.

“Preparation is key to all of those catastrophic incidents. You can’t do much to prevent a ligament injury. But on the scale of things, those aren’t catastrophic,” said Dr. Gilliland.

When scheduling your child for their annual sports physical, there are a few things you can do to ensure a thorough exam. The first thing you can do is choose the right medical professional. A family care physician or pediatrician who already knows your child is best. A specialist in sports medicine will know what things to look and listen for.

The second thing you can do is make sure you know your family’s health history and share it with your doctor.

“If you have a family history or somebody who is a primary relative like a brother, sister, mother, or father who has a history of sudden cardiac arrest death. If you have a mom that has passed away due to unfortunate circumstances in her 30s, that individual probably needs to be screened a bit more beyond just listening to the heart during a physical exam,” said Dr. Gilliland.

The third thing you can do is fill out the health history forms accurately.

“The most important part of the physical is not the exam, but the history party. The history questionnaire catches a multitude of things, not just cardiac related. It is excruciatingly important to make sure parents fill it out and to make sure they read the questions because our ability to give a kid the ‘green light’ is predicated on that accurate history,” said Dr. Gilliland.

WSAZ looked into just how detail those forms are in each state and what questions are being asked.

The questionnaire part of the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) and the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) physical forms are mirror images. Both include the same 10 questions that the American Heart Association has established as the standard of care. The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission (WVSSAC) has its own questionnaire with similar, but fewer questions that address the heart.

WSAZ asked the WVSSAC Executive Director if they intend to adopt those same questions and include them in pre-participation physical forms.

“We are looking to revamp our physical form. It is certainly on the schedule. The national physical form for pre-participation is going under some adoption right now too, so, we’ll kind of wait and see what they do,” said Executive Director Bernie Dolan.

West Virginia does have a stronger requirement than Ohio and Kentucky when it comes to having life-saving equipment readily available. West Virginia state law says that an AED must be present for all high school games and practices. An AED is a device that can be used to quickly shock someone’s heart back into regular rhythm. Many schools keep an AED inside the school building near the gymnasium. This ensures that most indoor sports have an AED that is easily accessible. For many outdoor sports that are played away from the school building, it is the responsibility of the coaching staff and athletic trainers to make sure an AED is present and nearby.

Unlike West Virginia, there are no state laws in Kentucky or Ohio that require AEDs be present at sporting events. The devices are only recommended by the athletic associations.

“If we make a health and safety recommendation and a school district decides not to do it, they are taking on a tremendous amount of liability. Once we recommend it, it is pretty well done. We’ve settled on an NATA recommendation that you should have an AED,” said Julian Tackett with the KHSAA. “If we make a health and safety recommendation and a school district decides not to do it, they are taking on a tremendous amount of liability. So once we recommend it, it is pretty well done. We’ve settled on an National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) recommendation that you should have an AED within three minutes access of any time you are practicing or competing and that seems to be working in our schools.”

Lawrence’s former teammate in Ohio, Matthew Bess, says recommendations are not enough and he hopes it will become a requirement in the future. When Lawrence passed away, there was not an AED nearby. He believes it would have saved his friend’s life that day.

“I don’t just think it would have, I know it would have. If we’d have had one close, you just pop that baby on there and it tells you what to do. If there had been one on the field, near the field, he’d have been here today,” Bess said.

Bess his now the athletic director at South Gallia High School. The school possesses six different AEDs. Bess does what is not required in Ohio; have an AED present at all games and practices. He hopes lawmakers and athletic officials around the country will take additional steps to ensure the safety of young athletes.

“I lived through 1997 when one of my good friends and teammate passed away because of something that could have been prevented. I don’t want to have to go through that as an administrator, parent or teacher,” Bess said. “I’ve already been through it as a student and teammate, and I don’t want to go through that again.”

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