Parents who lost child to heart disease placing AEDs around Ill. town

The Greg Holthaus Memorial Fund partnered with St. Joseph’s Hospital to place AEDs near high schools

By Megan Braa
The Belleville News-Democrat

BELLEVILLE, Ill. —  The Greg Holthaus Memorial Fund and the Hospital Sisters Health System St. Joseph's Hospital in Highland have partnered up to help prevent the No. 1 killer of student athletes.

To recognize National CPR and AED Awareness Week, the two organizations celebrated the "grand opening" of a new automatic external defibrillator machine June 2.

An AED is a portable device that is used to send a shock to restore normal heart rhythm during sudden cardiac arrest. The machine was placed near the Highland High School baseball fields, a spot that was found to be a good central location for summer sports.

"We have a lot of rec baseball teams who use our fields all summer long," said Caleb Houchins, athletic director at Highland High School. "Having a stationary machine located near these fields for use in emergencies is wonderful. We are very grateful for our partnership with these two organizations."

Through its Athlete's Advantage program, St. Joseph's Hospital already partners with the Highland High School sports by providing the school with a free athletic trainer. But, hearing of the Holthauses' mission, St. Joseph's staff saw a perfect way to get involved even more, said Amy Liefer, St. Joseph's director of communications.

"This was really the perfect pairing between (the Greg Holthaus Memorial Fund) mission and the hospital's mission," Liefer said.

Late last year, the hospital proposed to pay for the high school baseball field AED machine and its housing unit. They did this so funds raised by the Holthaus family could be better utilized to educate the community.

"This partnership between our organization and the hospital is going to allow both of us to do more for our community," said Gail Holthaus, who, along with her huband Mark, founded their organization in tribute to their son, who passed away unexpectedly in October 2013.

The partnership has allowed the Holthaus family to fund CPR/AED at St. Joseph's in Highland every quarter, that are completely free and open to the public.

"Educating people on how to use the AED machine is so important. If you can't use the machine, it doesn't do any good," Gail Holthaus said.

The Greg Holthaus Memorial Fund is a non-profit organization through the Highland Area Community Foundation.

Greg graduated from Highland High School in 2013, where he played three years of football and four years of baseball, proudly wearing the No. 34.

"I wouldn't say he was the best athlete in the world, but he was usually the most enthusiastic," Gail said.

Gail said that her son was very kind and spent his time in school always trying to make new friends, while making everyone feel loved. He had an all-smiles attitude, that could draw laughs by the crowd. There are even a few videos of him on YouTube impersonating some of his coaches and giving a pep talk to his coworkers at a catering job. Gail said he was the type of person whose kindness was infectious and he easily touched the lives of many people.

"Greg was just a fun loving kid. He was very kind and he was a friend to all," Gail said.

During his first year of college, Greg went to visit a couple of friends at the University of Missouri in Columbia. While he was alone in a dormitory bathroom, he suddenly collapsed and died. He was only 18.

"We had no indication that anything was wrong, so that came as a big blow to us," Gail Holthaus said.

Greg had undiagnosed hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a hereditary disease that thickens the heart walls. The disease can lead to an unexpected failure of the heart known as sudden cardiac arrest.

After learning about what killed their son, the Holthaus family set off on a mission to spread awareness about sudden cardiac arrest. The Greg Holthaus Memorial Fund was born.

"The reason we do this is because, I guess, every bereaved parent's biggest fear is that their child will be forgotten, and we just want Greg to live on," Gail said.

Because Greg loved Wiffle ball, the organization hosts an annual tournament to raise funds for CPR/AED classes and to place AEDs -- which can cost between $1,000 and $2,000 each -- throughout the community. This year's tournament will be Oct. 14.

"It's a fun tournament. We usually have 20-something odd teams," Gail said. "It's a good day and a good time."

Last year, they raised approximately $5,000. All in all, Gail estimates that the fund has raised just about $12,000 for the community. The Holthaus family also placed an AED at the Highland Knights of Columbus Hall.

"We would like to add more AED machines in the community—one at the middle school and then we will talk to the Parks and Recreation Department and see where the need is," Gail said.

Signs of Greg's lasting touch can be seen throughout the community. In addition to purchasing AEDs, the organization has also made donations to the HHS football and baseball programs, Adopt-A-Family, and back-to-school supply collection efforts. There is a baseball award given out every year called the "34 Award," where the team selects a player that is an example of dedication to the sport of baseball. A memorial bench is also posted at Glik Park, near the Highland Optimist baseball field. The bench was donated by some parents of Greg's HHS varsity baseball team. The bench was placed where his family used to sit and watch him play.

"We miss him, and he is missed by very many people." Gail said.

Copyright 2017 The Belleville News-Democrat

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