Had he lived, Simon Sudman would have been a first grader this year.
But his death at 3 months from an undetected heart defect in 2005 spurred his parents, Darren and Phyllis, to press for state laws that would help prevent sadness like theirs from darkening the lives of other families.
On Wednesday, the Plymouth Meeting couple’s efforts bore fruit: Gov. Corbett signed into law House Bill 1610, making Pennsylvania the first state to set standards for preventing sudden cardiac arrest and death in student athletes and children.
At the bill-signing in the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Elementary School gymnasium, Darren Sudman choked back tears as he dedicated the ceremony in Norristown to Simon.
Even though the legislation could not have saved their son’s life, they hope that it will save the lives of older children, particularly those who participate in sports at school.
"We’re never going to go to soccer games or choir practice with Simon. Our ceremony is for him," Sudman said and then addressed his son directly: "You’ll always be with us, like a handprint on our hearts."
The several hundred in attendance — pupils, families, legislators, and families, some of whom have also lost children to sudden cardiac arrest — responded with a standing ovation.
The new law requires a coach, game official, or school-certified athletic trainer to be vigilant for signs of sudden cardiac arrest among student athletes. Signs include fainting, dizziness, chest pain, and a racing pulse. Any students showing such signs must be pulled from the field or court immediately.
If the players are found to be healthy, they can return to the playing field or court, but not without a written note from a doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner or cardiologist. School sports personnel must undergo yearly online training in the warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest, and parents will be educated, too.
"Students who want to participate in athletics will take home a list of symptoms, and their parents will read it, sign it and send it back to the school," said the governor. "They’ll know the warning signs to look for, which is the biggest part of prevention."
Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) said he agreed to sponsor the bill after the Sudmans persuaded him that careful attention to the condition of student athletes, plus raised awareness of heart ailments among school officials and parents, could save lives.
One aim of the law, which cleared the House by a vote of 199-0 last October, and the Senate by 46-2 on May 22, was to make sudden cardiac death a "household term," Vereb and Sudman said.
Simon’s Fund, a nonprofit founded in 2005 by the Sudmans, already carries out heart screenings for schoolchildren and raises the money to support the outreach program.
According to figures released by the governor’s office, sudden cardiac death is the leading killer of student athletes. Up to 7,000 die each year from the condition nationwide, the office said.
Typically, student athletes engage in sports with undetected heart defects such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle. Under the stress of athletic activity, the heart cannot pump enough blood, and the player collapses and dies. That condition claimed the life of Akhir Frazier, 16, a promising basketball star from Prep Charter High School, on Aug. 21, 2010.
Vereb said he hoped the new law would profoundly reshape the way athletic coaches and officials think, and their attitude towards playing through pain.
"The message that we often send our kids during sporting events is to play through the pain and fatigue, but many people don’t realize that advice can be fatal," Vereb said.
Sudman echoed his words: "Fainting is not acceptable. Gatorade is not the remedy," he said.
Also present at the bill-signing were five physicians wearing white coats. David Shipon, a preventative cardiologist associated with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, called the event "a really historic day that will lead to a substantial reduction in these fatalities." He said one in 300 American children is at risk for some feature that can be linked to sudden cardiac death.
At the end of the ceremony, a somber Darren Sudman said he felt "relieved, happy, inspired."
"It’s a great accomplishment and achievement, but we still have a lot of work to do, " he said.