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Ill. pushes for required CPR, defibrillator training in high schools

The bill is in the Senate; proponents say public safety organizations can provide free training, but a group opposed says it will amount to “another unfunded mandate”

By Maura Zurick
Chicago Tribune

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.— George Laman wonders why nobody used the nearby portable defibrillator to restart his daughter’s heart when she died while practicing with her high school drill team. Eric Bell says he is alive today because his son learned CPR.

Now their two suburban families have formed a partnership that’s behind state legislation to require high school students to learn how to use the heart-starting device and perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

They’ve already won overwhelming approval in the Illinois House for a measure that’s similar to laws in eight states, and they’re setting their sights on Senate passage after the bill sailed out of a committee Tuesday.

“We have these two families, the Lamans and the Bells, who told very moving stories,” said Democratic Rep. Dan Burke of Chicago, the chief House sponsor. “The message is clear. When you have more people learning lifesaving skills, you see an increase in the number of saved lives.”

There’s no money for school districts to pay for such training, however. Burke suggests that local fire departments provide lifesaving lessons for free, as organizations like the Red Cross and American Heart Association already do. “They will train the school employees who will train the students,” he said.

But a group representing school boards throughout the state is opposed, saying the well-intentioned measure would amount to “another unfunded mandate,” given the state’s precarious financial situation.

“Even small new costs are a big burden on schools that already don’t receive the funding they need,” said Zach Messersmith, a lobbyist for the Illinois Association of School Boards.

While the bill got 100 votes in the House last month, 12 Republicans voted against it. Rep. Sandra Pihos of Glen Ellyn said she had a variety of concerns, including the idea of requiring training for students but not adults at high schools.

The bill is backed by the American Heart Association, which says the use of CPR or an automated external defibrillator can double or triple survival rates. But CPR or AED must be administered immediately because for every minute that passes without assistance, the victim’s chance of survival decreases by 10 percent, giving paramedics less than 10 minutes to arrive, said Alex Meixner, the Illinois spokesman for the American Heart Association.

For Burke, the latest measure is a way to expand on legislation he sponsored to put defibrillators in health clubs, golf courses and high school gyms. Laman, a retired firefighter and paramedic, contacted him and suggested the training requirement idea, and the Bell family later joined the effort to highlight CPR training.

Laman’s only daughter, Lauren, 18, was a senior working on a dance routine in February 2008 when she collapsed and died in the St. Charles North High School cafeteria. She previously had been diagnosed with a heart condition called mitral valve prolapse, Kane County coroner and court records showed. She had been cleared by a family doctor to participate in athletics, and school officials had been notified of her condition, records showed.

During practice, Lauren suddenly broke formation, gently sat on the floor and lay down, according to a St. Charles police report. When she started turning blue, her coach called 911 and started CPR, the report said. The coach was joined by a junior varsity drill team coach and the athletic trainer, who retrieved an AED about the time emergency personnel arrived. The school’s AED was not used. She was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead, records show.

How quickly this all took place was part of a lawsuit the Lamans brought in 2009. It was dismissed by a judge in March 2012. Laura Di Andrea Iversen, who represented the Laman family, said the court ruled that the case did not “reach the level of willful and wanton conduct” needed to proceed. The ruling was not appealed.

“Keep in mind that they’re high school teachers, not doctors,” said Gerard Cook, the attorney for the school and its employees. “These teachers undertook heroic efforts to save this girl. They felt horrible that they didn’t.”

Laman’s lament is that bystanders sometimes don’t try to help for fear of making a mistake. The portable defibrillator was only about 40 feet from where his daughter collapsed, Laman told lawmakers.

To Eric Bell’s family, CPR is a lifesaver that needs to be taught statewide.

In January, the 50-year-old Elmhurst resident’s heart stopped because of a blockage in one of his arteries. What saved Bell was 12 minutes of CPR performed by his son, Harry, and his wife, Brigette, until paramedics arrived at their home and took over, said Dr. Anand Ramanathan, the first to treat Bell.

“There’s no doubt that CPR saved his life and brain function,” said Ramanathan, a cardiologist with Advocate Medical Group. “He was a lucky man that it happened around people — and around people who could help him.”

Harry is a 17-year-old junior at Fenwick High School, a Catholic school in Oak Park where he learned CPR during his freshman health class. Brigette Bell’s only training came from watching CPR given at restaurant only a week before her husband’s heart attack.

Now that portable defibrillators are more readily available and easy to use, Laman said, education is the next needed step.

“It’ll take some time, but we’ll create generations of lifesavers,” Laman said. “This is something that Lauren would want us to do.”

Tribune reporter Matt Walberg contributed.

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