INDIANAPOLIS — Two Hoosier moms are fighting to raise awareness of the risk of Sudden Cardiac Arrest on behalf of their late sons.
Sudden Cardiac Arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating and can lead to death if a person does not get help immediately.
According to ParentWatchHeart.org SCA is the number one killer of student athletes, and the leading cause of death on school campuses, with many kids living with unknown heart conditions that put them at risk.
"He was loving, witty," says Theresa Mago about her middle child, Zac. "Extremely caring."
Theresa looks through pictures of Zac on a giant board.
The young athlete played basketball year-round for John Glenn High School in northern Indiana and traveled for AAU basketball.
"This was his last school picture taken when he was 17," says Theresa as she points to one image. Then she points to another where he is wearing a red shirt and a smile across his face. "Now I ask you, does this look like a young man who is going to die within twelve hours of this picture?"
She says it was completely unexpected.
Zac had a full heart screening for sports in 2014. He had to go for further examination due to a possible heart murmur at the time, but everything looked normal when doctors took a closer look.
"So we had a baseline of his heart and everything was fine," says Theresa. "Until it wasn't"
The photo she starred at was taken on the 4th of July, in the evening. About twelve hours later, Zac, a young basketball star, was just taking a nap.
This was 4 years after passing that heart screening.
"No abnormalities," says Theresa. "Four years later, no signs, no symptoms, no warnings, he was gone."
Theresa says through the pain of Zac's sudden passing, they searched for answers, and thought for sure it would not be his heart.
But one week shy of his 18th birthday, Zac died from Sudden Cardiac Arrest in his sleep.
Theresa says since his death, she has learned that kids, especially student-athletes, should be screened as they grow because their bodies change.
"I did not know that he should be screened again," says Theresa, who now makes it her mission to raise awareness of these heart screenings in honor of Zac through the Zac Mago foundation.
The organization provides heart screenings, limited echo, ECG, height and weight measurements and resting blood pressure.
Recently she partnered with a Lawrence area nonprofit called Play Heart Smart.
"These tests are not part of a sports physical, your annual sports physical, and so these kids are put out there with this false hope that they are safe to play these sports in the heat and get their heart rate high and all of these things," says Ashley Beadles, a cardiac sonographer and founder of the nonprofit Play Heart Smart. "They have an underlying condition that no one knows about."
Beadles says when she became an echo tech, she screened a young basketball player who ended up finding out he had a heart defect.
She says that week she looked into how to start a nonprofit to provide these types of screenings to student athletes all across the state and three years ago, Play Heart Smart was founded and now her home office is in Fort Harrison.
Play Heart Smart travels across the state to schools and events to screen kids ages 10-18, and they target the population who may not notice the signs of a heart defect. Sometimes symptoms could mimic hydration or student-athletes this age may not tell anyone if they feel a little dizzy or light-headed at practice.
At these mobile clinics, she typically sees 70 to 11 kids in one setting, and she is booked up for 2023, but taking requests from schools for 2024. At her Fort Harrison office, parents can bring their children for a screening for 50 dollars. If that cost keeps anyone from getting screened, they have payment plans available.
She says since the Damar Hamlin SCA, interest in screenings has been overwhelming.
"Since that happened, we have had a very big uptick," says Beadles. "With high schools taking it serious, athletic directors taking it serious, nurses and parents all taking it serious."
And through the Zac Mago Foundation, Theresa noticed the same interest since that Buffalo Bills game.
She says for the first time in two years of hosting these clinics, they had zero no shows after the Hamlin case.
"It's unfortunate that it took a national stage event to get people to pay attention to their heart health," says Theresa.
But she says she will continue to raise awareness for prevention in honor of her late son.
"We were close. I'm close with all of my kids. Zac and I were close. He left behind two siblings," says Theresa. "So, I know that he is proud. There's no doubt."
Theresa says prevention is the best way to keep SCA from happening to student-athletes, but when that doesn't work, we need to be sure we have the life-saving tools in place to save lives.
"Prevention is the only cure for Sudden Cardiac Arrest," says Theresa. "And if there's not prevention, then we need to be ready with an AED."
That mission connected her with another Hoosier mom fighting to raise awareness.
"He just was a great kid all around and brought people together," says Julie West, mother of Jake West. "He played football and lacrosse for Laporte High School."
Jake was a young athlete and full of joy. He was a loving son, brother and friend who loved being outdoors.
But in 2013, Julie remembers getting a call when her son was at football practice.
"He just was finishing up running a football play and he collapsed and went into sudden cardiac arrest," says Julie. By the time she got to the school he was in the ambulance. "Come to find out, one of the coaches stepped in and did CPR, but the AED was not on the field and it was in the coach's office."
That automated external defibrillator may have been able to restart Jake's heart on the practice field that day, but it was not accessible. Julie says she doesn't blame the coaches or the school because at the time, people didn't really know. But now, she says, we know better, which is why she spent a day testifying at a committee meeting in the Indiana statehouse.
Senate Bill 369 is currently working its way through the state legislature on the topics of AEDs in schools and at school activities.
A similar bill passed easily out of the Senate last session but ran out of time in the House.
The bill would require an AED to be present and accessible within 3 minutes of any school activity and the schools need to create action plans with training and drills so that people know where the devices are located and how to use them.
"Everybody has a role when something like this happens," says Julie. "We haven't done enough."
Adam Kean, an Associate Professor of Clinical Pediatrics with IU School of Medicine, says he supports this legislation.
Not only does he have his medical background, but he says his entire family is in education and so he knows the challenges schools face each day.
"There's so much that schools are confronted with," says Kean. He says some schools are very eager to get AEDs and put action plans into place. But others don't make it a priority at this time. "So it really is all over the place."
He says not only are the devices important to have accessible within minutes, but you also need people to feel confident and prepared for a SCA incident.
"It's one thing to have the knowledge and expertise and it's another thing to put people in sort of that practice unit working together," says Kean. "The goal is to get an AED on that chest within 3 minutes."
He says he device itself is simple to use.
He walks us through how to use it in the video below
"When patches are put on an individual, it's not going to do anything except sense the individual's electricity," says Kean. "What it's going to do is sense the rhythm and if it's on someone who has a pulse, a heart rhythm that is perfectly fine, it's just going to continue monitoring and it'll say that."
But Kean says if the device senses the person needs a shock it will advise the user on how to administer a defibrillation.
"With the purpose of resynchronizing the heart's native rhythm," says Kean.
Julie continues to testify and raise awareness about these life-saving devices through her foundation, Play For Jake.
Through its efforts, The Play For Jake Foundation partners with schools to provide heart screenings for its students, as well as to raise funds and awareness around the importance of AEDs.
"We are fighting, us mothers, are fighting to make a change," says Julie. "What I think about everyday when I wake up is, what would Jake want me to do. So that's what helps me motivate myself and helps me put my feet on the ground and do what we do."
You can find about more about both of these organizations by visiting their sites at https://zacmagofoundation.org/ and playforjake.org.
Theresa and Julie have come together after their tragedies to form an initiative called Team 265 to honor both Zac and Jake. Together the two organizations advocate for preventative heart screenings for those ages 10 to 25, CPR training and AED placements. Team 265, as the moms says, is two hearts with one mission.
Another important organization with an Indiana affiliate promoting this cause is Project ADAM. This organization started in Wisconsin and now in Indiana, people are working to get AEDs in school and provide CPR training needed to save lives.
Project ADAM and Project ADAM Indiana promote both basic life support (BLS) certification as well as AED's on-site, within 3 minutes of anywhere on a school campus.
Kean, who is involved, says that this is just the beginning, however, and periodic training and practicing drills is necessary to improve response times, effective resuscitation, and improved survival rates. Kean says while the pandemic slowed some efforts, they are now working to get back into schools and certify them as "Heart Safe Schools" across the state.
He says even children have the ability to learn what these devices do and how they can help in an emergency.
This past January, Project ADAM was in North White Junior and Senior High School.
Cathedral High School is the first school in central Indiana to be named a Heart Safe School.
You can find more information at https://www.rileychildrens.org/about/riley-in-the-community/project-adam-indiana