David Finlayson was healthy and strong, a natural leader, skilled as an infantry assaultman in the Marine Corps.
“He never missed his target,” said his mother, Laurie. “Everyone looked up to him. He was such a morale booster (to the platoon) because he could turn all of their awful situations – cold, wet, muddy, whatever – into a funny story. He was someone who brightened every situation.
“He had blue eyes, a great smile,” she said. “He was the ring leader … creative, fun, very witty. He could slice and dice you to ribbons, but nicely.”
The military mom worried about her son’s well being, a soldier subjected to the risks of training, possible deployment, even combat.
But never, Laurie insisted, was she concerned about his heart.
David, a second-year Marine from Kent, was on a routine five-mile run with his battalion in Hawaii on Nov. 7, 2013 when his heart went into sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) and he collapsed. Efforts to revive him failed. Marine LCpl. Finlayson was only 25 years old.
While an autopsy revealed he had an “athletic heart,” big but not defective, it remains unknown as to what exactly caused David’s heart to stop. He had never had a simple ECG (electrocardiogram) that might have revealed some kind of cardiac disorder, Laurie said.
SCA occurs when the heart stops beating, abruptly and without warning. If this happens, blood stops flowing to the brain and other vital organs. In addition, if the heartbeat is not restored with an electrical shock immediately, death follows within minutes. SCA accounts for more than 350,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to studies.
Nearly a year after her son’s death, Laurie established the Heart Heroes Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness of SCA and advocates heart health in military communities. The foundation also is promoting the presence and use of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) on military posts and at physical fitness events.
The foundation urges young adults to get heart screenings.
“A sports physical is not enough for our kids,” Laurie said.
For the first time, the Heart Heroes Foundation joins the Kent School District and the Nick of Time Foundation, a similar nonprofit that focuses on civilian communities, for an ECG youth heart screen event on Wednesday, March 8, at the Kentwood High School gymnasium, 25800 164th Ave. SE, Covington. The school was chosen to host the event in honor of David, who participated in the Kentwood JROTC program. He graduated from Kentridge where he ran cross country and track.
Young adults ages 14-24 must preregister for appointments. Organizers hope to screen its capacity of 500 young hearts.
Darla Varrenti has a similar story. She founded the Nick of Time Foundation after her 16-year-old son, Nicholas, died of SCA while sleeping after a weekend of playing football in 2004. Nicholas played football and wrestled at Jackson High School in Mill Creek.
The organization continues to bring awareness and educates schools, athletes, families and communities about SCA, the importance of learning CPR and providing AEDs.
The Nick of Time Foundation have screened more than 20,000 students since 2006 and discovered heart problems in more than 450 of them. Of those, 98 percent have been able to participate in sports again after treatment, according to Darla, the foundation’s executive director.
“You have to do more than listen to the child’s heart,” Darla said of proper screenings, which examine the electrical and structural nature of the heart.
Laurie said her foundation’s work has made an impact in just a short amount of time.
Following David’s death, another Marine in Finlayson’s battalion came forward and admitted to symptoms of dizziness and shortness of breath. He was diagnosed with a heart condition and was medically discharged.
Last week, the foundation donated its first AED to the Naval Station in Everett.
As Laurie pointed out, more AEDs are becoming available in public places, including libraries, schools and airports.
“They’re accessible … not locked in the nurse’s office,” she said.
Laurie said the foundation’s work is worthwhile, important and done in the spirit of her late son. Darla shares those sentiments.
“Nothing’s going to bring Nicky and David back,” Darla said. “It’s something we do to keep their memory alive and be able to save someone else’s life in the community.”
Download a student health history form at nickoftimefoundation.org/programs/screenings. Complete it with a parent permission signature. To receive an appointment, return the form to the Kentwood High School Athletic-Activities Office, or scan and email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 253-373-4771.