NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - On a particular Tuesday evening, Jim Fisher stood in front of a group of coaches and doctors at the newly - renovated, start-of-the-art simulation center at Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick.
Jim’s son, Sean, died in Aug just 2008, as a result of an undetected heart defect. He was just about to turn 13. The two and their family are natives of Waldwick, a small town just off Route 17 in Bergen County.
“It was just sudden, he was a big kid,” Jim said, stuffy-nose and wiping away tears. A union carpenter for more than 30 years, Jim spoke like your typical Jersey tough-guy.
Sean had just gotten onto the soccer field and was warming up, Jim said, he went down. A jokester by trade, the first thought was that Sean was fooling around; it quickly dawned upon everyone at the soccer field that he wasn’t.
Emergency personnel rushed to the field and tried for the next few hours to keep Sean alive, but to no avail.
By the end of the day, Sean was dead. His death is what’s known as a “sudden cardiac arrest death,” where the heart just stops, and the person dies.
Sean Fisher, who died in Aug. 2008. Credit: Sean Fisher Memorial Foundation
As part of an effort to lower sudden cardiac arrest deaths, the six coaches were there for an intensive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) class being held at the hospital, to prevent future deaths like Sean’s.
Known as the “All Heart Program,” it’s only the most recent leg of a decade-long mission by Jim to prevent more deaths.
Jim runs the “Sean Fisher Memorial Foundation,” to raise awareness on sudden cardiac arrest deaths in youth athletes and to advocate for widespread and robust screening initiatives.
“We’ve screened over 3,000 kids and caught over 300 kids with some kind of abnormality,” Jim told TAPinto New Brunswick. “There’s a ton of abnormalities, there’s a ton of different stuff.”
Ultimately, the foundation hopes to reduce this kind of mortality by bring education, training and preparedness to the field.
With the “All Heart Program,” young athletic coaches are trained to be first responders when a player goes down from sudden cardiac arrest, so that they can administer CPR while an ambulance is en route.
“We’re bringing the solution to the field,” Jim said. “If a kid ever goes down on the field that suffers sudden cardiac arrest, well then, we have the defibrillators, and the coach is there.”
The foundation has been working to make sure a defibrillator (known as an AED), a rather costly piece of equipment, is on hands at every athletic field across the state, and hopefully across the nation.
“We replaced AEDs, the one in the church, the gym, one for the American Legion, one for the town of Westwood for the recreation department,” Jim said, noting some recent successes. Since the autumn 2017, Fisher has been working with the Player’s Development Academy (PDA), a nationally recognized soccer club based in Somerset, to mass-train sports coaches.
PDA’s goal has been to train at least 80 coaches in CPR before the start of the spring season, and have all the fields equipped with AEDs.
So far, the program has been working full steam to get them all trained; six coaches a night, every weeknight, according to Dr. Nadi Kumar, a cardiologist at Saint Peter’s and one of the program’s founders.
“It’s one of those emergencies where time is just not on your side, so they’re trying to take the timespace element out of the response,” Kumar said. “Don’t just sit there helpless.”
New Jersey has a robust series of laws to prevent sudden cardiac arrest deaths in high school sports.
In 2012, then-Gov. Chris Christie signed in Janet’s Law, which requires all private and public K-12 districts to have an emergency action plan for cardiac arrest, and to have an AED within easy access of any sports facility.
But the law does have a hole: it doesn’t extend to youth leagues, and by extension, an entire segment of youth athletes.
Nationwide, the screenings appear to leave a lot to be desired. The only screening tool is a questionnaire, according to Saint Peter’s.
The American Heart Association and American Pediatric Society do not advocate for anything more extensive, such as EKGs and Echocardiograms, according to Saint Peter’s.
One incident really set everything into motion: the death of a high school lacrosse player in Holmdel this fall.
“It was one of the things that prompted the urgency of this meeting,” Kumar said.
Mike O’Neill, a longtime friend of Jim, PDA’s director of girls coaching and a women’s soccer coach at Rutgers University, connected the dots.
He put together the PDA, Saint Peter’s University Hospital, Kumar and the Sean Fisher Memorial Foundation.
“I call Mike and said ‘this is ridiculous that this just happens in your own backyard’,” Fisher said.
They all met together at the end of October, developed a concrete plan just before Thanksgiving and started rolling out the training sessions by mid-January, according to Kumar.
The phrase "All Heart" was used by PDA coach Jeremy Beardsley for years before hand, and became an inspiration that spread across PDA's teams and coaches.
Training in the simulator is open to PDA youth coaches and any individual coaches.
The class itself is intense. There’s two hours of non-stop, hands-on CPR training, followed by a tested performance of the CPR process on a mannequin. The mannequins are designed to be as lifelike as possible; they’ll make the kinds of sounds and movements someone in need of CPR would make.
The simulation lad featured over a dozen lifelike mannequins. Credit: Daniel J. Munoz
Recently standing before the half dozen coaches, the instructor - who declined to be named or photographed - told the trainees, “it’s going to be a very physical course.”
“You’re going to do at least a thousands compressions and you’re gonna do dozens and dozens of breaths,” he said. “When you leave here, I want you to not only know how to do CPR, I want you to be so confident that you can control a situation if a real-life situation can occur.”
The instructor will introduce a step, the class will practice it, then run through the steps from beginning to end. Then another step will be introduced, the class will practice it, and run through all the steps from beginning to end.
Non-stop, for two hours straight.
“When you do CPR and you’re doing compressions on the person, don’t ever expect that you’re gonna do some compressions and they’re gonna open their eyes and go ‘oh gee thanks, I needed that’,” the instructor said. “The odds of that happening are slim to none.”
Rather, the goal of CPR, is to keep blood and oxygen circulating through the body, from the heart to the brain, and doing what the heart and lungs aren’t able to that at that particular moment.
“If you don’t give CPR to a person as soon as they go down, they lose about a seven to 10 percent chance of surviving every minute, so figure we round off to 10 percent, so after three minutes on the ground, their chances of survival are like at 70 percent,” the instructor explained.
At the end, the coaches who pass earn the American Heart Association’s Basic Life support certification.
Any sports coach is welcome to take the course. To register, contact the simulation lab coordinator, James Spaulding, at 732-745-8600, ext. 5185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.