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Youth leagues invest in defibrillators

Robbie Levine, 9, in a photo taken in

Robbie Levine, 9, in a photo taken in 2005. (Sept. 28, 2005) Credit: Handout

The names change but the story stays the same. Ask "why defibrillators?" or "why now?" and the answer, when you get down to it, is two words long.

"Louis Acompora" or simply, "that lacrosse player from Northport." If we're talking baseball, it's "Robbie Levine" or "the kid from Merrick."

It's usually accompanied by a shake of the head, even now -- 11 years after Acompora's death and six years after Levine's. The two died at the ages of 14 and 9 after suffering cardiac episodes while playing the sports they loved. Both left behind bereft parents, shocked athletic programs and, Massapequa Coast Little League president Craig Garland said, one hanging question:

"Would a defibrillator have helped?"

Garland asks that while his own son, Matt, a 13-year-old Little Leaguer, stands a few yards away, near the Massapequa Coast League field at Burns Park. Next to him is a large metal lockbox, several feet wide, holding one of the league's dozen AEDs -- the automated external defibrillators that the organization bought five years ago for each of its 12 fields.

The Massapequa Coast League has 99 team managers, and all are certified for AED use; the league employs 151 trained responders for 2011 with an active two-year certification. Every manager has a key to the 11 lockboxes (the remaining AED is stored in a different location). Certification is mandatory for all team managers and encouraged for assistant coaches. So far, the device, which boasts an automated voice that talks users through the process and won't shock if it detects it should not, has never been used.

As far as Garland knows, it is the most comprehensive AED program on Long Island. It also came about almost exclusively by donations -- a jarring fact when the numbers are considered. Initially, the AEDs cost about $2,000 apiece, the subsequently purchased lockboxes clocked in at about $7,000 total and the training, which must be renewed every two years, is about $2,000. At the program's inception, the projected start-up cost was $23,000, but Garland was undeterred.


Drumming up support

In 2005, Garland managed a team that played against Robbie Levine, and his death struck close to home. Quickly, his cause became more of a crusade.

"We got into a very heated, very emotional discussion about the thing" at the board meeting, he recalled. "It was like, 'We'll buy a defibrillator' and I was like, 'No, buying one is no good.' We have 1,400 kids in this program . . . If, God forbid, something happens at another field, the parent of that child is going to say, 'Why didn't you have a defibrillator here?' "

Ed Garofalo, a league board member and president of Himed and Hitemco, a medical applications company that donated the cost of two AEDs and helps with annual expenses, recalled the meeting with fondness.

"Craig was pretty impassioned," he said. "Everybody was touched by the [Levine] incident and we were all wishing there was something that could have been done."

With the board's support, Garland, a retired NYPD detective, dipped into his formidable Rolodex and sent out an e-mail blast pleading for support from parents, friends and local businesses.

"It's a pretty well-established e-mail list," said Peter Hart, a board member who, with his wife, donated the cost of two AEDs. Garland, Hart and Garofalo expected a response, but even they were bowled over by its force and its swiftness.

"Within a matter of three weeks, we got $21,850 in contributions from the community," Garland said. "I was extremely surprised."

With the help of Gerry Keuchler, a chief with the Massapequa Fire Department, the league went about establishing a mostly self-sustaining program. Every season, they set up about half a dozen training dates for its staff. The money for the training, replacement pads and battery checks continues to come in from donations, either from individual community members or businesses, such as the local branches of Astoria Federal Savings. To date, the two branches have donated $5,000 for training.

"It fit perfectly with what we're about," said Brian Edwards, senior vice president for marketing. "It's a very, very innovative program and we hadn't seen anything like this."

Edwards said the bank has no plans to cease its support.


Other leagues follow suit

Though possibly the most extensive, the Massapequa Coast League AED program isn't the only one of its kind. The Suffolk Police Athletic League, an umbrella group that oversees about 45 organizations, encourages leagues to buy the AEDs, Suffolk PAL chairman Lou Bonnanzio said.

"We do it in a nice way, to say, 'Guys, it should be mandated,' " Bonnanzio said. "We can't tell you how to run your program, but we can agree that safety is the main objective."

After the death of Acompora, a lacrosse goalie who took a ball to the chest, every Suffolk PAL program purchased at least one AED, Bonnanzio said.

"Like anything else, it takes a tragedy to open people's eyes," he said. "If an AED was present, maybe Louis would still be alive. That was probably the most impactful situation in the last couple of years."

Indeed, Acompora's death led to Louis' Law, a New York State law requiring an AED in every public school and at school-sponsored events. AEDs are not mandated for independent organizations, such as youth leagues.

Although there is no mandate, Connetquot Youth Association president Steve Smith was intent on bringing an AED to his group this year. On a "good Saturday morning," they can have about 200 children and up to 600 parents at their facility. When Smith became league president late last year, he made leasing an AED one of his priorities.

The AED, with maintenance, will cost the group $3,600 over three years, with the option to buy it at the end for an additional $400. They have 12 certified employees. Though the local fire department is only two minutes away, "between calling 911 and waiting for someone to get there, that could be the difference," Smith said.

"Every parent is thrilled to death that we have it," Smith said. "We raised our registration fee $5 and no one asked why."


The future of AEDs

Having seen firsthand how quickly things can come together, Hart hopes his league's experience will motivate others to follow suit.

"I'm really surprised other leagues aren't doing the same thing," he said. "It really wasn't that much trouble. People stepped up . . . It was pretty quick and we bought the dozen AEDs [right away]."

As it stands, the program keeps trucking on the back of annual donations and money from the league's general fund, which also pools resources from the snack stand, sponsorships and registration fees, which have gone up $5 in five years.

Garland, Hart and Smith all mentioned that users sometimes fear further harming people by deploying the AEDs, but they pointed to New York's Good Samaritan law, which ensures that those assisting in an emergency situation are not liable for any collateral damage.

"The reality with an AED is that it's going to be used on somebody's grandfather in the bleachers before it's used on a kid," Garland said. "It's peace of mind knowing that it's there . . . Not only is there an AED, but there's going to be 10 guys standing around him, fighting each other to put the pads on and bring this guy back."


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