Champions for the Cause

Survivors & rescuers advocate for SCA awareness

Once you have been personally affected by sudden cardiac arrest (SCA)—especially at a young age—it’s hard to deny the importance of preparing for this life threatening condition. As a result of such experiences, the following have become diehard champions for the cause.


As crazy as it seems, surviving a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) was the best thing that could have happened to Kayla Burt.
“It has given me a platform to reach out to young athletes—and families in general—to speak about something that seems to be an epidemic,” Burt says.

She’s also one of the rare people who can say they’re a survivor of SCA. She’s been a survivor for nearly a decade. On New Year’s Eve 2002, Burt, then a student at the University of Washington, fell face first on the floor in her dorm. At first her friends thought she was joking. Quickly, they realized she wasn’t.

Her heart stopped for five minutes. Burt’s roommates began CPR and called for EMS. Thanks to them, Burt is alive. She’s now equipped with a pacemaker. She also spends her days talking to others about SCA and the need for heart health.

“A month before my cardiac arrest, I was experiencing some weird chest pains,” Burt recalls. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep.”

Her friends took her to the emergency department at the local hospital, where she was sent home after a chest X-ray and observation. She was told to take Maalox, which helped. She now lectures high-school and college-age groups to make people aware of the symptoms of heart issues and the need to get checked.

“Because my life was saved, I feel like this is my mission. I feel like I’m indebted,” she says.

Seeing someone who survived, and only 29, helps bring the message home, Burt says. She has worked with the Nick of Time Foundation and is now an outreach coordinator for the Hope Heart Institute.

“I think it resonates with kids when they see someone like me,” she says. “They can see this stuff really does happen. It empowers young kids.”

Burt urges families to get their child’s heart screened to possibly prevent SCA down the road. She’s also participated in group screening and says it’s bittersweet seeing a heart problem identified during one of the events.

“You don’t want anything to be wrong with someone,” she says. “You don’t want to find something where they’d have to quit playing sports. But there is some satisfaction when you know you could have saved somebody’s life. They could have been a walking cardiac arrest and they don’t know it.”

Burt is helping in other ways, too. Since beating an SCA, she’s become an EMT—something she was always interesting in doing. She brings a unique perspective to CPR-in-progress calls, she says, and it also informs her work.

“I’ve always been interested in emergency medicine,” she says. “It’s a crazy feeling to know, when you’re on scene, and there’s someone in dire need of help, I was there. I needed their help, and here I am today.”

On a Mission

Matt StraussMatthew Strauss was just 17 in March of 2003 and serving as a student trainer at a high school basketball game in Pittsburgh, Pa.

While the game was underway on the court, an SCA that happened in the bleachers behind him had a life-changing affect on him, and now countless others. The man, then 48 years old, is alive today because of Strauss,who used his training as an EMT to revive him.

“At the time of the save, it was overwhelming,” Strauss says today. “It happened very quickly. There was the excitement of resuscitating a patient, but at the same time, at 17, I was scared about what the outcome was going to be.”

It all started when someone in the stands started screaming for a doctor. There were two on hand, and Strauss.

“It was just instinctive to take the medical bag and the AED [automated external debrillator] to the patient,” Strauss says.

The doctors were friends of his; although, they’d been far removed from emergency medicine. As it happened, Strauss was most familiar with how to use the AED. While they did CPR, he worked the AED. It took, he recounts now, just a minute and 40 seconds from the time he turned it on until he was delivering a shock. By the time trained professionals got on scene, the patient was sitting up.

It was only the second time he’d performed CPR. The first time he performed CPR was on a coworker at a supermarket, and it was unsuccessful. Strauss had been a proponent of having AEDs on hand in the school since he learned about them during EMT class. After his training, he noticed the school didn’t have them. He soon started a one-man campaign to get that changed.

“I made a few speeches at school board meetings. I brought a real AED in,” he says.

He eventually had some AEDs donated by a foundation. And, like a lot of places early on, the AEDs sat around collecting dust.

“When the save came, it propelled me to get the word out,” he says.

He then led CPR training programs for the school. He also got involved with the Sudden Cardiac Foundation to spread the word about CPR and AED awareness. Strauss now lives in Washington D.C. He’s a former paramedic and is now in law enforcement with the Department of Homeland Security. Strauss has laid the groundwork for an outpost of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation in the nation’s capital and is leading its Metro D.C. Affiliate.

“I think because of my real life experience with it, I can truly appreciate the awareness for AEDS, effective defibrillation and CPR,” he says.

His job, he says, is to get the word out about the importance of AEDs and CPR, and to get them placed in as many spots possible. He knows that from experience. A man is alive today because of Strauss.

“Pretty much every time I see an AED, it reminds me of what happened,” Strauss says. “It was such a monumental experience for me.”

And, no doubt, for the family of the man who survived.


SCA Activist

There was a point in Kaitlin Forbes life where she couldn’t stop thinking about how she survived a SCA.

She was just 15 in 2005 and a student at Rhinebeck High School in Rhinebeck, N.Y., when she collapsed. She survived. But in an unusual twist, her best friend at the time, Maggie O’Malley, died from an SCA the summer before their senior year.

To say she’s been changed by the experience would be an understatement.

“Sometimes I forget,” says Forbes, 23, “but I think about it every now and then. There was a point in my life when I had a very difficult time coping and understanding what happened to me and why I was given a second chance but my best friend was not. It was hard. But instead of dwelling, I decided to do something with the opportunities I have been given.”

“Make a difference,” she adds, “make a change.”

And she has. Since surviving her SCA, Forbes and her family have become tireless advocates for SCA awareness and the need for AEDS. She teaches CPR and AED classes through the Heart Safe Club in Rhinebeck, which was founded in O’Malley’s name. She became an EMT at SUNY-Cortland, where she volunteered on the EMS squad. And she’s lobbied for laws advocating mandatory CPR training in schools.

“Through my research on the topics and my involvement with Parent Heart Watch, I became acutely aware of the benightedness of the average American on the issue,” Forbes says. “I can’t tell you how many times I have mentioned an AED and had to explain what it was. People do not care unless they have directly impacted by an SCA, which is something that needs to change.”

No one should die because there wasn’t an AED available, especially in a school, Forbes says. And that’s what she’s focused on—getting people to consider that SCA does, indeed, happen to young folks.

“My story makes mouths drop, but I always end my story with Maggie O’Malley’s story,” Forbes says, “which leaves people speechless.”

She understands why that’s the case, too. She was there once. She knows few people want to think about the possibility of a 15-year-old suffering an SCA.  But that needs to change.

“Prior to my SCA, I had no idea what a ‘sudden cardiac arrest’ was,” she says. “I was 15 and mostly carefree. Dying from a heart problem was the last thing I would have thought would happen to me. I think that goes for pretty much everyone my age as well. Until it happens to someone they know. And in Rhinebeck, it happened twice. After Maggie died, everyone was scared. Would they be next?”

Forbes, of course, is working to make sure there isn’t a next time.

Click here for more about Kaitlin's story.

By Richard Huff, NREMT-B

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The mission of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) Foundation is to prevent death and disability from sudden cardiac arrest. The vision of the SCA Foundation is to increase awareness about sudden cardiac arrest and influence attitudinal and behavioral changes that will reduce mortality and morbidity from SCA.

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