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Athletic Trainers Suggest How to Prevent Sudden Death in Youth Sports

The National Athletic Trainers' Association released a first-of-its-kind position statement today on sudden death in youth sports, combining 10 older position statements from the organization into one 14-page document.

While the older position statements each took an expansive look at one particular youth-sports safety issue, never before has there been a position statement covering such a wide range of causes of death in youth athletes.

NATA also held its third annual Youth Sports Safety Summit today in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the release of the position statement. Researchers, athletic trainers, and parents of deceased student-athletes gathered to share their expertise in the ways sudden death in youth sports can be prevented.

"We believe that 90 to 95 percent of the deaths that happen in youth sports are preventable," said Dr. Douglas Casa, co-chair of the new policy statement, at the summit.

In the new statement, NATA members examined the leading causes of death in student-athletes, namely: asthma, catastrophic brain injuries, cervical spine injuries, diabetes, exertional heat stroke, exertional hyponatremia, exertional sickling, head-down contact in football, lightning, and cardiac arrest.

"Recognizing the many reasons for sudden death allows us to create and implement emergency action plans (EAPs) that provide detailed guidelines for prevention, recognition, treatment, and return to play (RTP)," the statement reads.

Nearly half of high schools lack athletic trainers, according to NATA, leaving coaches, athletic directors, or strength and conditioning coaches to shoulder the burden of immediately tending to student-athlete injuries. Since these professionals lack the medical expertise of an athletic trainer, NATA strongly recommends that all schools have an EAP in place, to guide school officials through emergency situations.

"You always have to prepare, because it's the unexpected that really sneaks up on you and causes problems," said Jon Almquist, an administrator of the Fairfax County Public Schools Athletic Training Program, during the summit.

Almquist hosted the final panel of the day, on EAPs, where he stressed that EAPs aren't a school's way of saying that they don't trust the coach to handle an emergency situation. Instead, EAPs help guide a coach or school official through the high-pressure situation of dealing with an injured child.

A number of the panelists stressed that EAPs and the new policy statement should apply to all students, not just student-athletes. Students could collapse of sudden cardiac arrest or suffer concussions during phys. ed. class, or could have asthma attacks during recess, after all.

'It Could Be Your Child'

Some of the most gripping moments of the day, if you ask this writer, came during the speeches and presentations delivered by the parents whose children died while playing sports. An emotional subject, to say the least.

Take Laura Friend, for instance. Her daughter, Sarah, was taking a junior lifeguard class at a local water park back in 2004. She was three weeks away from her 13th birthday.

The last day of the class, Sarah was walking up the stairs to a ride when she collapsed.

The water park housed two AEDs (one of which was underneath the ride where Sarah collapsed) and plenty of lifeguards, Laura said, but no one used the AED on Sarah. The park did not have an emergency plan.

"It doesn't matter if they have the equipment, if they can't recognize the condition," she said.

After Sarah's death, Laura created the Sarah Friend Heart Foundation, which has donated around 60 defibrillators to schools in Texas.

Then, there was Rhonda Fincher. Rhonda's son, Kendrick, went to his first day of football practice, collapsed from heat stroke after practice, and died 18 days later.

"I thought the worst that could happen is that he would maybe break a bone. ... We had no clue what our son was getting into," Rhonda said, through tears. "Over the next 18 days, we watched as his body shut down."

Since Kendrick's death, Rhonda started the Kendrick Fincher Hydration Foundation, which aims to promote proper hydration and prevent heat illness by education coaches, parents, and student-athletes.

Lisa Gfeller's son, Matthew, took a hard helmet-to-helmet hit during his first varsity high school football game, back on August 28, 2008. He never regained consciousness, and died two days later.

She created the Matthew Alan Gfeller Foundation to warn kids to "play it safe," especially when dealing with head injuries.

Last year, the Matthew Alan Gfeller Sports Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center opened at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Kevin Guskiewicz, recent MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" awardee, works. (Dr. Guskiewicz spoke at the summit about his ongoing work with traumatic brain injuries in young athletes.)

Solutions to a Pressing Problem

Unfortunately, student lives continue to be lost during school sports. This year alone, 40 student-athletes have died from sports-related injuries (many from sudden cardiac arrest).

That number is "not acceptable," said Marjorie Albohm, president of NATA, in the opening presentation at the summit. "Help us make that number a lot smaller," she pleaded to the audience, mainly comprised of policymakers in the Youth Sports Safety Alliance.

High school athletes suffer 2 million injuries every year, resulting in 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations annually, according to NATA.

While states have made serious headway with youth-concussion laws over the past two years, other youth safety issues, such as sudden cardiac arrest (the leading cause of death in youth-athletes) and heat illness haven't caught the attention of nearly as many legislators.

"Ultimately, all of these issues must be legislated," Albohm said.

The policy statement, "Preventing Sudden Death in Youth Sports," will be published in print in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Athletic Training.

Want all the latest K-12 sports news? Follow @SchooledinSport on Twitter.

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