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High school athlete pushes for defibrillators at games

A new requirement that defibrillators be available at all varsity football and hockey games could go into effect next school year, thanks to the efforts of a Milford teen.

Sean Burns, a sophomore at Milford High School, was 14 years old when he heard about the near death of a fellow hockey player on the ice, but the event turned him into an instant lobbyist.

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It was December 2010, and Tyler Symes, then a 15-year-old member of the Milford High/Blackstone-Millville Regional High cooperative team, took a puck to the chest that stopped his heart.

He was lucky. Several people were on the scene, including a cardiac nurse, who knew what to do. But there’s no way to know whether Symes would have lived if he wasn’t revived by the use of an automated external defibrillator, a device that greatly increases the odds of surviving sudden cardiac arrest, according to the American Heart Association.

“It could have been me that it happened to that day; it could have been someone I know,” said Burns, now 16 and a varsity football, hockey, and lacrosse player at Milford High. “It just really hit home.”

‘If anyone can get it, I imagine it would be Sean. He’s gotten a lot further with people than I have.’

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Burns and Symes didn’t know each other then, but are now teammates.

In the past two years, Burns has testified on Beacon Hill, persuaded businesses to donate nine AEDs to local schools and youth programs, and won backing from the board of directors of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs athletic programs at 373 public and private schools in the state, for his proposal to require having the devices available at football and hockey games.

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The board’s “yes” vote came last week, when the MIAA board approved Burns’ proposal with an amendment put forward by one of its members, Barry Haley, athletic director at Concord-Carlisle High.

Haley’s amendment made the AEDs the responsibility of the home team, as requested by the MIAA’s Sports Medicine Committee.

“Most schools now have them,” Haley said of defibrillators. “It’s a good measure.”

Haley said one more voting body, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Council, is expected to approve the rule change at its May 16 meeting, and then the measure would go into effect in July.

“I would be shocked if the council overturned that vote,” he said.

Allyson Perron, senior government relations director for the American Heart/American Stroke Association, said Burns has been instrumental in fighting for AEDs and she’s optimistic the measure will go into effect.

“If anyone can get it, I imagine it would be Sean,” she said. “He’s gotten a lot further with people than I have.”

Her association has been fighting to have AEDs in schools, which some states require, for more than 10 years, said Perron. In Massachusetts, defibrillators are required in health clubs, dental offices, and nursing homes, she said.

In 2011, Burns testified on Beacon Hill in favor of a measure to require them at all Massachusetts schools; the bill was not approved, Perron said, but it at least got out of committee, and she credits Burns for the progress.

Last year, the association scored a related legislative victory when it won passage of a measure requiring schools to have medical emergency response plans, which include the locations of AEDs and who in the school can use them. Known as Michael’s Law, it was named after a Sutton High School sophomore, Michael Ellsessar, who died in 2010 from sudden cardiac arrest while playing football. An AED was not immediately available.

The association is still working on getting AEDs in all schools.

Research shows that for each minute that passes after sudden cardiac arrest, there is a 10 percent reduction in survival rates, said Perron.

“Sudden cardiac arrest afflicts nearly a quarter of a million Americans each year, and it kills 95 percent of those who suffer from it,” she said. “Many of these lives could be saved if bystanders act promptly to phone 911, begin CPR, and use an AED within minutes. Most victims will die because life-saving defibrillation is administrated too late.”

Another reason she is optimistic: AEDs have come down dramatically in price in recent years, and now cost between $800 to $1,200.

“It’s really a money issue,” said Perron, who added that often local businesses, unions, or parent-teacher organizations will chip in for defibrillators.

A big reason the devices haven’t been mandated is funding, said Dr. Alan Ashare, chairman of the MIAA’s Sports Medicine Committee.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Ashare. “I think they should be at all athletic events. The problem is getting people to purchase them.”

Burns says if he can raise money for AEDs, which he does through his organization Hearts4Hockey, anyone can.

Millville’s Tyler Symes, now 17, is doing great, according to his mother, Dawn .

He’s back in his regular classes at school, and returned to hockey this winter, she said.

There’s no doubt the defibrillator made the difference for him, she said.

“I think it’s very evident that it was a big part in him still being here,” said Symes.

Lisa Kocian can be reached at lkocian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeLisaKocian.

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