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Seattle-area foundation educates about sudden cardiac arrest in young people

Oct 30, 2021, 2:48 PM | Updated: Nov 1, 2021, 5:45 am
cardiac arrest...
A high school football game in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Sudden cardiac arrest can claim the lives of a lot of young people, particularly athletes and those who seem otherwise healthy. One high school-aged athlete suffers a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) every three days in the United States.

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A local foundation — Nick of Time Foundation — is working to increase awareness about SCA and how it affects children and young adults, with the ultimate goal of saving lives through education and awareness, emergency action plans, and youth heart screenings.

The founder of Nick of Time Foundation is Darla Varrenti. She lost her son to SCA when he was 16, and named the foundation after him.

“My 16-year-old son was a football player and a wrestler and he died from a sudden cardiac arrest,” she told Seattle’s Morning News. “We didn’t realize that his heart was not working like it should be.”

Varrenti says between herself, her sister, and her brother in law, they have seven kids. Nick was the youngest.

“They were all athletes and active and we just didn’t realize that we weren’t doing enough to check their hearts to make sure they were safe,” she said. “So after Nick died, we formed the foundation, and it’s been our mission to educate people about sudden cardiac arrest in young people because … they get it confused with a heart attack, and they also think it just happens to older people and it doesn’t. Sudden cardiac arrest can happen to anyone.”

“It’s the leading cause of death on school campuses and it happens a lot more often than people think — up to 7,000 kids a year have sudden cardiac arrest,” she added. “So we’ve made it our mission to tell people that we’re not doing enough to check our kids’ hearts. We take them for well child checks and sports physicals, and they listen to their hearts with a 200-year old instrument instead of taking a picture of their heart, which sudden cardiac arrest in young people is usually caused by something electrical or structural, and you have to take a picture of their heart to see that.”

At Nick of Time Foundation screenings, every child gets an EKG and about 20% get an echocardiogram test, which is basically a picture of the heart.

“They can see how the muscle is, they can see how the blood is pumping,” Varrenti explained. “And that gives us just a little extra step to make sure the kids’ hearts are good. At this point, we’ve screened over 26,000 kids. We’ve had almost 600 that we’ve referred for follow up. And of that, about 170 have had procedures done, like open heart surgery and other kinds of procedures, to make sure that their hearts are safe to do the things they love.”

“We’re trying to be proactive instead of reactive and make sure that what happened to our family doesn’t happen to another family,” she said.

While parents often think their kid is healthy, safe, and that they’ve done everything, Varrenti says there’s just a lack of knowledge around SCA and a lot you can’t tell by just looking at your kid.

In addition to raising awareness about SCA and letting people know this happens to kids, the foundation focuses on screenings and helps train young people in CPR and how to use an AED.

“When we do our screenings, we can screen up to 500 kids at a time just because of the time factor,” Varrenti said. “We know that that’s not every kid in the school, but we know that if we teach them all CPR and how to use an AED that that’s a good chance that they’re going to save somebody’s life — in their family even, a grandparent, a parent, another sibling or something.”

Nick of Time Foundation’s next screening will be on Nov. 3 at Archbishop Murphy High School. It’s free, but registration is required. The screenings are open to any child, regardless of where they go to school, between the ages of 14-24. Learn more and sign up here.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Seattle-area foundation educates about sudden cardiac arrest in young people