Playing with heart
After nearly dying on the ice, former NHLer Rich Peverley is teaming with The Heart and Stroke Foundation to make defibrillators as common as fire extinguishers
Midway through the first period, Rich Peverley's heart stopped beating. Dallas Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets doctors and trainers converged on the then-31-year-old NHL forward, loading his limp body onto a stretcher and racing down the rink's tunnel toward a defibrillator – and revival.
Mr. Peverley tried to return to professional hockey after his cardiac event in March 2014, and began working out after his irregular heartbeat was corrected. He and his wife Nathalie would talk daily about the path forward, and he trained alone for nearly eight months. Ultimately though, after discussions with doctors and the Stars organization, Mr. Peverley decided his NHL career wasn't worth the risk.
Instead he returned to his hometown Guelph, Ont., to work on PEVS Protects, a non-profit organization that has joined The Heart and Stroke Foundation to raise money to put automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) in schools and to train young people how to use them.
"An AED saved my life," says Mr. Peverley, who now has an implantable defibrillator. "There's a real shortage of AEDs in communities."
Increasingly, schools are becoming high-traffic hubs for community events, extracurricular activities and sports. That makes them at-risk locations for cardiac events, even though the public often wrongly associates heart failure with old age.
As many as 40,000 cardiac arrests occur in Canada each year, and up to 85 per cent happen in public places outside of hospitals, according to The Heart and Stroke Foundation. For every minute that defibrillation is delayed, the chance of survival drops by 7-to-10 per cent.
And nearly one in every 100 children are born with congenital heart disease (which includes problems with the heart valves or muscles), but children can also be affected by arrhythmia (a fast or slow heart rate) and heart murmurs. Children between the age of 5 and 15 are most at-risk of developing rheumatic heart disease when illnesses such as strep throat aren't properly treated.
"He has made people aware that this doesn't just happen to old people," said Sara Felske, who works with Mr. Peverley out of Guelph's Heart and Stroke Foundation office. "It can happen to people of all different ages."
The Heart and Stroke's Public Access to Defibrillation program has always aimed to get AEDs into public places, like community centres and swimming pools, but there's an urgent need for them in schools across Ontario, said Mrs. Felske.
"Cardiac arrest is much less common – but still a concern – in schools and among students," she said, noting that the difference between cardiac disease in children and adults is the risk that they go undiagnosed. "What the stats don't reveal is the emotional impact of the sudden death of a child."
In more than 30 American states, CPR training is mandatory before high school graduation. Mr. Peverley and The Heart and Stroke Foundation want that to become a reality in Ontario, too.
"Ultimately, the idea is to have [AEDs] be as common as fire extinguishers," said Mrs. Felske. "Every 13 minutes, someone has a cardiac arrest in Canada, and having an AED in conjunction with CPR basically doubles the survival rate if it's on site."
The Heart and Stroke Foundation has helped place more than 2,000 AEDs in schools, but there are nearly 5,000 schools in the province.
Yet, cost can be prohibitive. Defibrillators can cost as much as $1,600 each. CPR kits, which PEVS Protects has encouraged kids to take home and teach to 10 other people, can cost as much as $40. That means training each school can run up costs of nearly $10,000.
Because only roughly 5 per cent of Canadians survive cardiac arrest outside of hospitals, that funding can be the difference between life and death.
In one Guelph school, crisis recently struck. Twelve-year-old Liam Flaherty was going through his normal morning routine. His mom Julie kissed him goodbye after breakfast a couple of hours before he collapsed while helping in a kindergarten class at his school.
"There were no indications of anything ever. Super healthy kid. We were completely unprepared. No person could be prepared," Mrs. Flaherty said, reliving that morning. "That's the second-worst phone call you could ever receive."
When Mrs. Flaherty answered the call, and the secretary at John McCrae Public School told her Liam had passed out, her first reaction was to ask, "Oh, do you need me to pick him up?"
It wasn't until the secretary told Mrs. Flaherty that the supply teacher in the class (who was, by chance, also a lifeguard) and the principal were performing CPR, and that she and her husband Bill had to get to Guelph General Hospital as soon as possible, that it set in.
"Bill and I zoomed over to the General and we got there before him, which was devastatingly difficult to wait," Mrs. Flaherty said.
By the time Liam arrived, he'd been intubated. Paramedics had to defibrillate him several times at the school, and then again in the ambulance. There was no defibrillator at John McCrae. Mrs. Flaherty says Liam was lucky that paramedics with high enough training were off duty and nearby.
John McCrae P.S. now has a defibrillator, but Mrs. Flaherty says parents at other neighbourhood schools are frustrated that their schools do not.
"You would never imagine that a healthy 12-year-old would have this experience," said Mrs. Flaherty. "We have all probably heard about teenaged boys in the middle of a strong sports event experiencing cardiac arrest, but Liam wasn't doing anything."
Like Mr. Peverley, Liam is back to full health. Mr. Peverley's implanted defibrillator is on his side. Liam's is under his skin in his chest. Mrs. Flaherty, a high school teacher, taught Mr. Peverley long before his NHL career began. Now her son and Mr. Peverley have connected through their stories and work together to educate people about the importance of access to AEDs.
It's an issue that has struck close to home more than once for the Flaherty family. After hearing the shocking news about Liam's attack, families in the Flaherty's neighbourhood grew frustrated when they discovered their school didn't have a defibrillator and little was being done to get one.
But even in schools that do have defibrillators, there's apprehension over how to use them.
"It's pretty daunting for people until you're trained with them and until you realize it's a pretty simple thing," said Mr. Flaherty.
Mr. Peverley now works as the Stars' director of player development and travels from Guelph to work with the team's prospects when he's not busy with PEVS Protects.
He has also become a role model to Liam.
"You never know when something like this is gonna happen and you have to be most prepared for anything should the worst happen," Liam said. "Even if nothing happens, it's better to be prepared than not to be prepared."