When Renton resident David Finlayson joined the United States Marine Corps in 2011, he was the picture of health.
Of course, even the most fit people can become sick or injured, and those anxious thoughts were ever present in the minds of his parents, Laurie and John.
“I worried about sex, I worried about drugs, I worried about grades in college… and when he joined the marines, I worried about accidents and drunken-ness, obviously combat, all those things,” Laurie Finlayson said. “I never worried about his heart.”
But after two years without incident, David suddenly collapsed during a particularly grueling 5-mile run with his battalion on base in Hawaii.
His fellow marines assumed he fell of heat stroke, as several others had done during the same exercise. They splashed water on his face, attempting to revive him.
It wasn’t until David starting turning blue did they realize something else went wrong. By the time the ambulance arrived with an AED, it was too late.
David was the victim of sudden cardiac arrest, caused either by a structural or electrical abnormality in his heart. His parents still don’t know exactly what went wrong, but their son’s passing in November 2013 spurred the Finlaysons to create the Lion Heart Heroes Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization that raises awareness about sudden cardiac arrest and advocates for all the military branches to screen recruits for various forms of heart abnormalities.
For the last four years, the Lion Heart Heroes Foundation has been working, first in Renton and now in Bonney Lake since March 2018, with various military branches to produce a scientific study about sudden cardiac arrest rates in the military.
While the study hasn’t been released to the public yet, Finlayson said the study concludes “military recruits are among the highest risk population for sudden cardiac arrest.”
There are many factors that can trigger a sudden cardiac arrest, from stressful situations like a car crash or drowning, though it’s also possible to be at rest before having an attack.
But according to a 2004 Brooke Army Medical Center study, the vast majority of non-traumatic sudden deaths that were monitored in the military (108 out of 126) were related to exercise, and the most common identified cause (64 cases of 126) was a cardiac abnormality.
This study also concluded “cardiac abnormalities are the leading identifiable cause of sudden death among military recruits,” but added more than a third of sudden deaths remain unexplained.
Prevention is possible
Sudden cardiac arrest isn’t just a problem with military recruits — Finlayson said many people are at risk, especially sports players.
Federal Way High School football player Allen Harris, 16, died on July 25 due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest, according to the Federal Way Mirror.
In fact, the American Heart Association’s 2018 heart disease and stroke statistics report claim sudden cardiac arrest appears among the multiple causes of death on more than 13 percent of deaths country-wide.
Since sudden cardiac arrest can be a problem for huge swaths of the American public, the Finlaysons are strong believers in an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of the cure.
That’s why Lion Heart Heroes has been partnering with the Nick of Time Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit that started when the founders’ son died from sudden cardiac arrest at the age of 16.
The Nick of Time Foundation now goes to high schools and uses ECGs (electrocardiograms) and ultrasounds to detect heart abnormalities in students all around the state.
According to Executive Director Darla Varrenti, one high-school athlete suffers from a sudden cardiac arrest attack every three days.
Recently, Nick of Time and Lion Hearts pushed into Kentwood High School, where David went to school when he was also in the Marine’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.
“They found a girl in JROTC who had dizzy spells… with Wolff-Parkinson White [Syndrome],” Finlayson said, explaining those with Wolff-Parkinson White have an extra electrical pathway in the heart that causes a rapid heartbeat, and can lead to sudden cardiac arrest.
The student was able to have her heart defect fixed with laser surgery before she graduated and went off to the Naval Academy, no longer having to worry about sudden cardiac arrest, John added.
Appointments with Nick of Time can be booked online at nickoftimefoundation.org. Slots are available for the first 300 students to register at various events, costs $25, and takes up to 40 minutes to complete.
Recognizing the signs
While Laurie and John are working hard to raise awareness of sudden cardiac arrest, they know it’s impossible to completely prevent attacks.
Thats why Lion Heart Heroes also educates people about the signs of sudden cardiac arrest, to decrease medical response time.
According to Parent Heart Watch, a national non-profit, signs of sudden cardiac arrest include collapsing, labored breathing, and seizure-like activity. The group emphasizes being aware of these signs especially after blunt force trauma to the chest, which could cause sudden cardiac arrest if the heart is struck, even lightly, while electrically recharging for the next pump.
Roughly half of people who suffer from sudden cardiac arrest show no prior symptoms, like shortness of breath, chest pains, dizziness, or unusual fatigue.
The non-profit recommends calling 911 and starting CPR immediately if you suspect someone is in cardiac arrest, and using an AED as soon as possible.
“It’s important, not just to have an AED at a school, but also have an emergency action plan that has some training behind it,” so not a minute is wasted when an emergency is happening, Laurie said.
According to Lion Heart, every minute of delay in medical aid means the chances of survival drops 10 percent, so when it comes to responding to these emergencies, “Get on your horse and ride… there is no time,” John added.
Even if there is an AED nearby, it’s no help if no one knows where it is. According to the Finlaysons, an AED was roughly 300 yard away from where their son collapsed, but it was never brought over to him.
This is partly why Lion Heart Heroes also raises money to donate high-quality AEDs to schools and military bases, and advocates for AEDs to be as numerous and visible as fire extinguishers.
Laurie and John are currently working on donating an AED to the Hawaiian base David was stationed at, and hopes to have the details ironed out by November, in time for the fifth anniversary of their son’s death.
To learn more about Lion Heart Heroes, you can visit their website at www.lionheartheroes.org. The group will also set up a table at Bonney Lake Days, which is being held on Saturday, Aug. 18 at Allan Yorke Park.