High school biology class in Palm Beach County just got a little more hands on: Every student in the course is going to learn Hands-Only CPR beginning next fall. That will put about 11,000 more life savers on the region’s streets in one year, and more each year that follows.
It is another step in a national campaign to put a dent in the number of deaths and injury that result when hearts stop beating – and it wasn’t an easy sell.
Across the U.S., 36 states require schools to teach students how to compress someone’s chest should a heart fail – but Florida isn’t one of them, despite years of effort by the American Heart Association.
So here, the organization is taking the state one county school district at a time. Palm Beach County is No. 7.
No one is prouder to be on that short list than School Board member Erica Whitfield, whose last job was as the district’s wellness coordinator and who sits on the board of the local heart association. But even she proved difficult to persuade.
“It’s funny how against it I was at first,” Whitfield admitted.
She had the same objections that many lawmakers in Tallahassee have expressed: “I felt like people were asking us for one more thing. I don’t like asking teachers to be overwhelmed.” Also, who was going to pay for it? Who was going to do the training?
“Obviously, I love health. I learned from other communities how they’ve done this,” Whitfield said. “What swayed me was what this means to the families.”
While some people may worry about performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a stranger, Whitfield said, “often it’s their own family members they will save.”
The life-saving technique dates back more than a century. In 1903, Dr. George Crile reported the first time a person was revived by those external compressions, according to the American Health Association.
What is CPR and how does it help?
Chest compressions can double or triple the chances of a person’s survival by pushing oxygen-rich blood through the body to keep vital organs alive. It buys time until paramedics arrive.
For decades, those certified in the skill used a combination of chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth breathing. But in 2009, the association got behind the equally effective Hands-Only CPR, advising bystanders who witness an adult suddenly collapsing to call 911 and then provide “high-quality” compressions to the chest. (The heart association still recommends chest and breaths CPR for infants, children, people who are overdosing or drowning and people who collapse because of breathing problems.)
This also spawned a revival of the Bee Gees’ hit Stayin’ Alive, as it had the perfect tempo for timing those compressions, which should clock in at 100 to 120 beats per minute.
Not to get lost in the age of the bell bottom, the American Heart Association has added more current tunes to the list including Crazy in Love by Beyonce (see video below), Hips Don’t Lie from Shakira and Walk the Line by Johnny Cash.
With some more tunes to compress by, the school district eased through the logistics of training teachers to train students.
Staff began with a pilot program last school year. In November, 75 middle and high school physical education teachers were trained to deliver the lesson in the span of one class period. The American Heart Association supplied the teaching kits including video introduction, lesson materials and 10 rubbery dummies on which to practice.
“That’s the important part. They have to sit and do it themselves. We don’t want them to just sit and watch a video or watch a teacher demonstrate. They learn by doing,” said Tonya Eherhardt, regional vice president of community health for the heart association.
Each high school got at least two kits, each worth $650, said Eric Stern, who’s in charge of the district’s physical education program.
In August, 200 more PE teachers will be trained. But because not all students take physical education (some take the course online – another story), the district has directed the lesson be given during high school biology, typically taken in 10th grade. The teacher will walk students to the training to be led by the PE teachers, Whitfield said.
Hundreds of students, for example those enrolled in medical magnet programs, do get CPR training. But requiring it through biology will reach many more.
Whitfield is now all about those numbers.
“I kind of got into the competitive spirit, which is always my downfall,” Whitfield said.
Who is she competing with? Seattle.
More than 350,000 people a year have a sudden cardiac arrest when they are not in a hospital and about 9 in 10 will die. Survival rates are far better – 20 percent as opposed to 5 or 10 percent – in Seattle, a University of Washington professor told The New York Times in 2015.
Among the keys to Seattle’s success? According to the professor, a citizenry that is quick to perform bystander CPR.
Florida counties that require CPR be taught districtwide
Palm Beach County