Lifesaving tool saves young athlete's life

High school basketball player suffers sudden cardiac death

By Jennifer Waugh - The Morning Show anchor, I-Team reporter, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Megan Leitner was playing point guard on the varsity basketball team at St. Joseph Academy in St. Augustine last December when she collapsed on the court.

"I thought she was having an asthma attack," said Coach Sherri Nowatzki.  Megan has asthma, but has always signaled to her coach when she needed a break.  That day, she had started, then came out to use her inhaler and was back in, when she suddenly collapsed. 

Only it wasn't an asthma attack that had her unconscious, wit her eyes rolled back and foam coming from her mouth.

"Her lips started going blue and I started checking for a pulse in her neck and I couldn't find one," explained  Katelyn Ostopick an athletic trainer who attends the games just in case something like this happens. 

Ostopick knew Megan needed an AED, an automated external defibrillator. 

"I turned around and said, 'call 911,' and took off for the AED in the athletic training room," recounted Ostopick. 

As luck would also have it, Dr. Ferris George was in the parking lot when someone ran out and yelled for him to come inside the gym. 

Dr. George is a cardiologist.  His daughter plays on Megan's team.  He and Ostopick attached the pads of the AED to Megan's chest. 

The machine emits an electrical charge that restarts a heart that has stopped beating.  It worked on Megan.  Her twin sister Molly, who also plays on the team, and her parents, watched in horror as everyone worked to revive the 18-year-old. 

Roger Letiner, Megan's father, says he will never forget hearing Dr. George say, "She's gone.  We just lost her,"  in the moments leading up to engaging the AED.

His wife, Bonnie, described to us, "I felt like it wasn't real.  Like I was watching a movie or something.  It just didn't feel real."

Megan spent two days in a medically induced coma and several more days in the hospital.  She does not remember collapsing, but does recall waking up in the hospital not knowing why she was there. 

'I couldn't believe anything like this could happen," said Megan.

Doctors do not know why her heart stopped beating, but have implanted a defibrillator which will send an electrical shock to her heart should it ever happen again.  She can no longer play basketball, but attends every game and sits on the bench with her team keeping stats.  

Fortunately, St. Joseph Academy has an athletic trainer who works at the school as part of a partnership between St. Joseph Academy

and Orthopedic Associates of St. Augustine, where Ostopick is employed. 

Only about 40 percent of the schools in northeast Florida have certified athletic trainers on staff.  They are trained to spot warning signs of cardiac arrest, among other conditions. 

There is no state mandate that requires middle and elementary schools to have an AED on campus, which costs about $1,500 for each device.  High schools with athletic programs are required to have at least one.  We did some checking to see which schools have the life- saving devices on campus. 

The Duval County school district tells us that all public high schools have at least 3 AEDs on campus.  All of its middle schools have at least one.  Only a select group of elementary schools have the devices. 

We're told all St. Johns County schools have AEDs on campus. 

In Nassau County, all schools have at least two AEDs, except one elementary school, which has one. 

According to the Clay County school district spokesperson, all junior highs and high schools have AEDs.  Some, but not all, elementary schools have the device as well.

If your child attends a private school or participates in an athletic league, you need to check to find out if there is an AED readily available in the event someone collapses during a game or on campus.

Four years ago, 15-year-old Andrew Cohn died while playing in an athletic league at a baseball field in Dinsmore.  He collided with another player running to first base.  The collision caused his heart to stop beating.  His family has said an AED would have saved him, but there was not one at the field.

Megan Leitner's father says every time he sees Dr. George he thanks him for helping to save his daughter's life. 

"He said you keep thanking me, he said I appreciate it, but he said if it wasn't for that defibrillator, we wouldn't be having this discussion," said Leitner.  

Cardiac arrest is the number one killer of young athletes.  In fact a student athlete dies every three days of a cardiac incident here in the United States.  Student athletes are required to have a physical exam in order to play sports in school.  But the exam may not always discover an underlying heart condition in young people. 

A local pediatric cardiologist is involved in free health screenings offered every year to Duval County athletes.

Free athletic screenings are hosted each August for high school and middle School athletes of Duval County at Wolfson Children's Hospital and Nemours Children's Clinic.  These screenings are arranged by the Jacksonville Sports Medicine Program and through the athletic directors of individual schools.

The 2014 screenings for Duval Coounty athletes will be Saturday, Aug, 2, at 8:30 a.m.:

  • High School & Middle School Boys:  Nemours Children's Clinic
  • High School & Middle School Girls: Wolfson Children's Hospital

The screenings offer a comprehensive health assessment through a stationed-type exam which includes pediatric cardiology.

For more information on the program, please visit or speak to the athletic director at your athlete's school.

Also the Jacksonville Sports Medicine Program offers CPR certification classes to local coaches.  To sign up or for more information, call 904-202-4332.

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