JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - At 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds, 16-year-old Zach Martin towered over his friends. So he was thrilled when he was invited to high school football practice in Fort Myers last June.
"He absolutely loved football, everything about football, bugged me for years to be able to play," said his mother, Laurie Giordano.
Her son was in perfect health as he participated in summer conditioning. He was very good about staying hydrated, "he carried around a gallon jug of water," said his step-father, Ed.
She remembers waiting in the parking lot to pick Zach up once practice ended at 10 a.m. Instead, it was a teammate of his who walked up to her car.
"A teammate knocked on my car window and said, 'Zach’s down and they can’t get him up," she recalled.
Heat stroke killed her son
Giordano wasn't worried as she walked to the field. She figured Zach was having muscle cramps. Then she got closer and realized something was wrong.
"He was moaning over and over again,” she said.
Giordano was alarmed, but she said the coach warned her not to panic. "He just got a little overheated, and we just need to get some fluids in him and he’ll be okay," she remembered him saying.
She watched as other players tried to feed her son water. He wasn't drinking it. She swatted a bottle out of his hand when she realized he was having a seizure.
It was then that Giordano told the coach to dial 911. But by the time Zach reached the hospital, his core body temperature had climbed to 107 degrees. Heat exhaustion had led to heat stroke.
"He was admitted to the ICU and they started telling us about organ failure. His liver had completely failed. His kidneys were completely failing," she said.
But during those first trying hours in the pediatric intensive care unit, there was no doubt in Giordano's mind that her son would pull through. Her husband, Ed, said Zach's health didn't improve.
"Things were getting worse each day," he said.
After 10 days, they made the heart-wrenching decision to remove Zach from life support. The organ failure caused swelling on his brain. The doctors could not bring him back.
"At the end, we were just letting him know the we all loved him, we loved him so much and we would miss him so very much," Giordano said.
Since then, Zach's mom and stepfather have created a foundation in his memory, the Zach Martin Memorial Foundation, to travel the state talking to parents, coaches and athletic trainers.
"I don't think this was an issue where everyone panicked. Everyone was calm and cool and collected," said Giordano. "They had no idea what to do. He (Zach) was in the middle of the football field on a hot day and never even moved to a shaded area. 911 wasn't called until I insisted. I feel like if I hadn't done that he would've died right there on the field."
While Giordano cherishes the time she had with Zach, she and her husband miss his bear hugs, his gentle soul and the opportunity to watch the boy they loved grow into the man he wanted to become.
"He was going to be a great dad. He was going to be a great person. He was going to have a great job. He was going to do lot of great things because you could see it happening right before your eyes," said Ed Giordano.
Zach should have been cooled down with ice that day. He should have been benched as soon as he started vomiting during practice. Someone should have been monitoring the temperature and the humidity on that football field in Fort Myers.
Had that happened, Zach would have lived to see his 18th birthday, and he would be getting ready to start his senior year in high school.
Warning signs and steps to take
There are several stages of heat-related illness, and it's important to know the warning signs of each. Signs and symptoms have been known to develop suddenly or over time.
If you think you are experiencing heat exhaustion, stop all activity, move to a cooler place and rest, and drink cool water or sports drinks.
Those suffering from symptoms of heat syncope should lie down in a cool place and slowly sip water, clear juice or a sports drink.
Heat Stroke (Emergency)
INTERVIEW: Recognizing signs of heat stroke
If you think a person may be experiencing heat stroke, seek immediate medical help. Call 911 or your local emergency services number. In the meantime, take the following steps:
1. Take immediate action to cool the overheated person while waiting for emergency treatment.
2. Get the person into shade or indoors.
3. Remove excess clothing.
4. Cool the person with whatever means available -- put in a cool tub of water or a cool shower, spray with a garden hose, sponge with cool water, fan while misting with cool water, or place ice packs or cold, wet towels on the person's head, neck, armpits and groin.
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