Local foundation screening hearts and saving lives one child at a time

By Megan Managan | Aug 15, 2014
Courtesy of: Nick of Time Foundation Sue and Steve Apodaca, along with Darla Varrenti, lead the Nick of Time Foundation, which runs local heart screenings at area high schools.

Since the Nick of Time Foundation started offering heart screenings at local schools four years ago, the foundation has screened more than 11,500 kids for heart defects.

The goal is to prevent another tragedy like the one that affected the Varrenti and Apodaca families eight years ago.

Nick Varrenti died in 2006 of sudden cardiac arrest. The life-long athlete had shown no signs of heart problems, but as the family learned, the condition was much more prevalent than they expected.

“We realized after Nicky died and looking at the statistics how often this does happen,” said Darla Varrenti, Nick’s mother and one of the founding members of the Nick of Time Foundation.

“This is something other parents need to know about. All of our kids were athletes and active, and we didn't know that this was something that happens to kids as often as it does and continues to.”

In starting the foundation – based in Mill Creek where the families live – Varrenti, her sister Sue Apodaca and husband Steve Apodaca have been working to raise awareness and help local kids learn about heart-related issues.

“Our three focuses are Sudden Cardiac Death awareness, the youth heart screening programs, then our CPR and AED [automated external defibrillator] training programs.

“We do a lot of work helping school districts, talking about CPR training and AEDs programs at the schools,” Varrenti said.

Of the more than 11,500 kids screened, the foundation found 355 who needed follow-ups for something serious.

“It ranges from them being monitored for a heart condition all the way up to open-heart surgery,” Varrenti said. “All the children have been returned back to play and what they loved. It's pretty amazing.”

The foundation will run 11 heart screenings this coming school year, and are booked out three and a half years in advance. Each screening is free to those who sign up.

While it started at local high schools, now the foundation primarily works with the districts as a whole, bringing in students and athletes from a wider area.

“Any of our screenings are open to any child 14-24 in that school district,” said Apodaca. “We don't ever turn a child away; they just need to make an appointment – and it's not just athletes. All kids.”

The screening process starts with kids checking in and completing a health history to help doctors and medical staff pinpoint any problem areas.

Blood pressure, weight and height are taken before a physician listens to their heart.

Local paramedics and nurses administer an electrocardiogram, and at the end of their appointment students come together for a large group CPR lesson.

“They all have a turn to sit down with a doctor and go over all the screening results, and if there's any red flags at all, or the doctor wants to take a better look at the child's heart, we have people trained to administer an echo, and the cardiologist is looking at it in real time,” Apodaca said.

“Then they get their final evaluation. At that point a majority of the kids are cleared and healthy and go back to class, and mom and dad have good peace of mind and they are recommended to get re-screened in two years, because of their growth.”

Any child who needs a follow-up after their screening works with Varrenti immediately following the screening.

“Screening students and athletes with an electrocardiogram (EKG) increases our accuracy of detecting a serious heart condition before tragedy strikes on the playing field,” said Dr. Jonathan Drezner, the medical director for the foundation and professional at the University of Washington Department of Family Medicine.

“Sudden cardiac death is the leading cause of death during sport, and most youth with potentially lethal heart conditions don’t have any warning symptoms.

“The EKG allows us to look beneath the surface and diagnose many of the conditions at risk.”

Each screening brings in roughly 500 students and is run with the help of 100-125 volunteers, including local paramedics, firefighters, doctors and nurses.

“I work really hard at connecting with all of the medical providers and clinics and hospitals and medical centers in that geographical location because it's really important that they know what we're doing.

“They want to learn what we're doing and how we're doing it and to support the program,” Apodaca said.

The foundation is also working in Edmonds with the Truax family on the Heart of Edmonds, which will focus on AED training.

Matthew Truax died of SCA last fall at Meadowdale High School.

“Basically it's helping the school district facilitate a public access program,” Apodaca said.

“We also want to make sure they have the ongoing training and have that support moving forward so their communities are safe.”

When the new school year begins in September, the foundation will launch its latest program, its CPR Superhero campaign.

The program stems from a new law passed by the state legislature last session that requires all school districts in the state to develop a medical emergency response plan and have an AED program for high schools, as well as requiring schools to offer CPR training to students.

“It's something we're very proud to be apart of,” Apodaca said. “We're going to be very involved in making sure the schools have the resources they need to teach CPR.

“Only about 50 percent of schools in the state teach CPR.”

While the law requires all schools to offer the training and have a plan, Varrenti said the foundation will start by working with local high schools.

“We're starting at the high school level, and we're hoping it will trickle down,” she said. “Since they're getting ready to graduate, we're hoping that's a good place to start. There are 438 high schools.”

“One of statistics we use is that 80 percent of the time you're going to perform CPR on someone you know and love, so it's really important to do and that they don't panic.”

To see a complete list of local screenings and other events through the Nick of Time Foundation, visit www.nickoftimefoundation.org.

2014-2015 Screening dates and locations

Local screenings are open to any and all students in that school district. Anyone interested in being screened is asked to make an appointment prior to the event.

Aug. 27, 2014- Marysville Getchell HS

Sept. 17, 2014- Pacific Northwest Ballet

Sept. 26, 2014- Half Moon Bay, CA

Oct. 8, 2014- Squalicum HS

Nov.  5, 2014 – Lake Washington HS

Dec.  10, 2014 –Ingraham HS

Feb.  7, 2015- JBLM Reservists

March  4, 2015- Garfield HS

April 1, 2015- Foster HS

May 6, 2015- Mariner HS

June 3, 2015- Edmonds SD

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