Silver Chips Online

Governor designates May 25 for Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Day

Late Blair student honored

By David Jia, Online Blair Connections Editor
May 26, 2007
It was exactly two years ago yesterday that then-senior Richard Andrew Helgeson passed away from cardiac arrhythmia, leaving the rest of the school in a state of shock and mourning. For Helgeson's parents Richard and Rita, their son's tragedy will always seem like yesterday. But, they are determined to prevent history from repeating itself and resulting in the loss of more lives.
Helgeson co-captained the 2005 boys lacrosse team. <i>Photo courtesy of Rita Helgeson.</i>
Helgeson co-captained the 2005 boys lacrosse team. Photo courtesy of Rita Helgeson.

After a year of lobbying, Richard and Rita have persuaded Governor Martin O'Malley to designate May 25 as the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Day for Maryland. O'Malley signed the proclamation a couple weeks ago, but dated it May 25. Governor Bob Ehrlich was going to sign it last year, but since the date had already past, and Ehrlich failed to be reelected, Richard and Rita had to redo parts of the application process.

This day is a commemorative holiday to honor not only Andrew, but all who have died of or survived sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), says Rita. This condition, which is different from a heart attack, occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating; 95% of people with SCA do not survive, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Heart attacks, on the other hand, are when the blood flow is blocked from the heart, but the heart is still working.

The couple's charity organization, the Richard Andrew Helgeson Memorial Foundation, focuses on children and young adults, people who tend to not think about having this life-threatening condition.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the time the first symptom is death," says Richard, recalling how there were absolutely no warnings or signs that his otherwise healthy son would not live to graduation. But, Richard says that proper screening with doctors may be able to detect a problem before sudden cardiac arrest happens. So, the foundation pushes for more research to be done on sudden cardiac arrest and better medical screenings.

Though school athletes must receive pre-participation examinations before participating in a sport, Richard calls these checkups "a joke," as a nurse can fill out the forms and get a doctor to simply sign them. He and Rita want to get more rigorous tests for students. Next year on May 25, they plan to hold a free cardiac screening at Blair for students and the community. "Andrew was a very kind and generous person," says Rita. "And he wouldn't want this to happen to anyone else."

According to Richard, Andrew's condition happens more often than is detected. "If Andrew had had a sudden cardiac arrest while driving, doctors might have written down 'car crash,'" as the cause of death. Richard and Rita want this health problem to be known, not as a rare disease, but a condition that can happen to anyone, which also gives more incentive for scientists to do research on the matter.
A memorial for Andrew Helgeson, created last year, stands inside the football stadium. Bridget Egan
A memorial for Andrew Helgeson, created last year, stands inside the football stadium.

Last year, the bill proposed by Richard and Rita, mandating all high schools to have Automated external defibrillators (AEDs), was successfully passed in April and took effect in July. A defibrillator, which passes electricity through the heart, could have saved Helgeson's life if it had been used in time. Now, the couple is pushing for stricter requirements, including mandatory health class lessons on performing CPR and using AEDs in health class and a requirement to have portable AEDs at all school sporting events. This year, Richard and Rita donated a portable AED to the Rockville Jewish Community Center (JCC), where "Andrew was a beloved counselor."

To further raise awareness for sudden cardiac arrest, Richard and Rita give out the Richard Andrew Helgeson Memorial Heart of Gold Scholar Athlete Award to one student each year. They look for someone who exemplifies Andrew's qualities as an academically successful athlete. The student should also have a "more compassionate side" as well, says Richard, explaining how "Andrew was always looking out for the freshmen and sophomores." Richard and Rita want to eventually have an application process for this award and plan to hold it for "quite a while." At last Monday's Awards Ceremony, senior Nicholas Mozer received this year's award, which consisted of $1000 and a plaque.

The couple is also holding the annual Richard Andrew Helgeson Memorial Alumni Lacrosse Game on June 2. "The game is free admission for everyone," says Richard. "We do not want anyone to be left out."