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‘Gwyneth’s Law’ saving lives

MORE: Read more Stafford County news

Jennifer and Joel Griffin sit in the former bedroom of their  daughter Gwyneth. The then 12-year-old passed away in 2012 after suffering cardiac arrest while at school. In the wake of her death, the Griffins have been successful in getting "Gwyneth's Law" passed which requires training in CPR and use of defibrillators for all high school graduates. (RHONDA VANOVER / THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

Jennifer and Joel Griffin sit in the former bedroom of their daughter Gwyneth. The then 12-year-old passed away in 2012 after suffering cardiac arrest while at school. In the wake of her death, the Griffins have been successful in getting “Gwyneth’s Law” passed which requires training in CPR and use of defibrillators for all high school graduates. (RHONDA VANOVER / THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

When Angela Sparks became certified last summer in CPR, first aid and how to use an automated external defibrillator, she hoped that she’d never actually need those skills.

Many classmates may have had a similar thought at the training at Ebenezer United Methodist Church, organized for a teenager who was in the hospital after not getting CPR soon enough.

After that class, though, twice in two months, Sparks, a Stafford County mother of two, performed CPR—and saved the lives of a teenage girl and a 60-year-old firefighter.

“That’s the only reason that those two people are still here was because of Gwyneth” Griffin, Sparks said. “She was a sweet, sweet girl, and she had a smile on her face everyday. It’s good for something good to come of something so tragic.”

A framed photo of Gwyneth hangs from the Griffin's Christmas tree. (RHONDA VANOVER / THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

A framed photo of Gwyneth hangs from the Griffin’s Christmas tree. (RHONDA VANOVER / THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

After a cardiac arrest at A.G. Wright Middle School, Gwyneth didn’t get CPR for at least 10 minutes. Time is brain, doctors like to say. The 12-year-old’s brain couldn’t survive after being deprived of oxygen for so long. Those first few minutes are critical, Gwyneth’s parents have learned.

Gwyneth Griffin died July 30, 2012, at age 13.

But because of her, hundreds and thousands of people—adults and students—have learned CPR voluntarily in Stafford in memory of the young dancer.

“They wanted some power back, they wanted to be able to help other people, and sometimes you can’t rely on adults,” Sparks said about some of the teens who took the class.

Susan Hulsey, an instructor for both the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross, has trained hundreds who knew or heard about Gwyneth.

“She’s definitely making a difference,” Hulsey said.

And less than one year after the teen’s death, school employees across the state were required to take CPR trainings, under Gwyneth’s Law. Within three years, high school students also will have to learn CPR before graduating.

LAW GOES ON BOOKS

Joel and Jennifer Griffin didn’t take long to realize that they wanted to prevent other children from dying unnecessarily.

Their message was carefully crafted: This wasn’t a new fad, a new idea—CPR can save lives, and could be more effective if taught to wider audiences, particularly schools. CPR training already existed in high school curricula, but could be improved with a hands-on component.

The Griffins didn’t want to be a pair of grieving parents upset with the world. They conducted research and put together a plan for local legislators to carry in the 2013 General Assembly session. They wanted to effect a logical change that could save lives.

“It all built up,” Joel said. And it worked.

The law requires students—starting with ninth-graders in the 2016–17 school year—to get training in CPR and use of defibrillators as a requirement for graduation.

It also requires teachers to get CPR training—although not necessarily certification—as part of their licensure requirements, and encourages school divisions to acquire a defibrillator for every school.

The American Heart Association got on board early, as did Mended Little Hearts, a national organization that supports families of children with congenital heart defects.

Also lobbying on behalf of the bill were doctors and interns from VCU Medical Center, where Gwyneth spent nearly two months before dying in July 2012.

Friends and family also spoke to legislators.

“It brought a community touch. It wasn’t just a family with a tragic story. It was a whole community,” Joel said.

The legislation wasn’t politically driven.

“This is the right thing to do,” Joel said.

Two or three times a week, for three months, the Griffins traveled to Richmond to meet with legislators.

“We wanted them to know who we are,” Jennifer said.

Added Joel: “We didn’t want someone else to represent our daughter. It was more genuine from us.”

The General Assembly was generally supportive of the idea, but at first questioned the implementation.

Joel attributes the legislation’s quick success to Jennifer’s extensive background research. When legislators asked a question, she had immediate answers—she wasn’t just a mom in mourning.

“I’ve been a lawyer for 20 years,” said Sen. Richard Stuart, who presented a resolution from the state Senate to the Griffins during an October Board of Supervisors meeting. “I have never seen any testimony any more powerful and moving than that of Jennifer Griffin’s. When she walked out of that room, from there on out, we had unanimous votes on this bill for the rest of the session.”

It was a tough sell, but many legislators thought it was common sense.

“I think it’s tremendous, the legacy you all have left your daughter,” Stuart said during the emotional presentation that brought the audience in the board’s chambers to its feet. “We carried the bill, but you all got it through.”

Del. Mark Dudenhefer, who entered local politics with the goal of fixing roads after his own daughter’s death, also presented a plaque on behalf of the House of Delegates.

“There’s nothing I’ve done in two years in the legislature that’s more important,” said Dudenhefer, who lost a re-election bid after one term. “It touches so, so many people.”

He noted that 80,000 CPR-trained young adults will leave state schools every year, under this law.

A working group in Stafford made specific recommendations locally.

In Stafford’s school system, 2,000 teachers and staff have received the bystander CPR/first-aid and AED training. Another 600 completed basic certification.

Stafford has asked anyone who spends significant after-hours time at the schools—building administrators, activity sponsors, coaches, fine arts teachers—to receive the basic level of certification and not just the training.

Each elementary school now has two AEDs, and every middle and high school has four. The portable devices can diagnose an irregular or absent heartbeat and then deliver an electric shock to help a person’s heart re-establish a regular rhythm.

The county Board of Supervisors gave the schools $280,000 for start-up costs for Gwyneth’s Law this past spring.

REMEMBERING GWYNETH

Gwyneth was born with a heart murmur, but cardiologists consistently gave her a clean bill of health. They said one day, Gwyneth may need surgery to replace her aortic valve, but that should wait until after her heart and body had fully developed. Aside from that, she was a normal, healthy kid.

The blonde preteen danced with Patrick McGrath School of Irish Dance and was a member of the National Junior Honor Society. She won science fairs and played soccer.

Today, Gwyneth is still a part of the Griffin family’s everyday life. They pick up charms for her bracelet, and they wrapped gifts for her for under the tree.

Butterflies seem to show up all sorts of places, like on the sidelines of younger sister Ainsley’s soccer games. Jennifer likes to think Gwyneth sends them as a reminder that she’s still with them, and not to worry.

Before she died, the family had begun plans to build a new house in a still-developing subdivision. Jennifer and her daughters particularly loved seeing wildlife when they visited the site. That house is now under construction.

Telling the story over and over was difficult at first, but the Griffins also found it healing. The more people that know, the more people become empowered to learn CPR, and the more lives that could be saved, Jennifer reasons.

During a summer trip to Hawaii—their first vacation with just their smaller family—they placed a pink lei in the water for her.

The three Griffins visited a volcano and the Pearl Harbor memorial, went snorkeling and took surfing lessons.

“We can still have fun, and no matter where we go,” Jennifer said, “Gwyneth is there.”

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975

kthisdell@freelancestar.com

 

LEGACY LIVES ON

In March, Angela Sparks was hiking with a guided group of 15 or 20 others at the Homestead Resort, when a man collapsed.

When he wasn’t breathing, Sparks started CPR. Employees rushed to the area with an automated external defibrillator, but didn’t know how to use it. Sparks did.

“That was a huge component that saved his life,” she said.

She didn’t think she’d ever have to use the skills she’d learned the prior summer, and she was petrified.

“In that moment when you have to do it, you know if you don’t try something, they’re going to die. When no one else knows how to do it, once you start, it just goes. You’re not thinking about it and how scared you are in the moment. Even if you don’t do it perfect, you’re doing something,” she said.

The man survived, and Sparks learned later he was a firefighter. He returned to work two weeks after the heart attack, and sent her a card, thanking her for her actions.

Almost exactly two months later, she hosted a pool party for her daughter’s classmates, many of whom had been friends of Gwyneth Griffin.

One girl couldn’t swim, but hadn’t told anyone. Friends noticed she went under, and didn’t come back up. Boys started pulling her, and Sparks’ daughter swam underneath to push her up. One called 911, and Sparks started CPR as soon as she was out of the water. She did two rounds before the girl flailed and came to. She’d had so much water in her lungs, though, that she spent a week at VCU Medical Center.

Sparks hopes that Gwyneth’s Law is providing effective training across the state.

“Doing something is better than nothing,” she said. “The most important thing is keeping our kids safe, especially when they’re at school. There’s no telling who’s going to be there and who knows what to do.”

—Katie Thisdell

LEARN CPR/FIRST AID

The latest recommendations on performing CPR include 30 compressions to two breaths, said Susan Hulsey, a certified instructor.

Complete certification in CPR, first-aid and AED use takes much of a day. Two major organizations offer classes, but private instructors can also be found, generally through word of mouth. Local fire and rescue departments may also teach CPR to the community. Contact your local station for more details.

The American Red Cross offers regular CPR classes at its Rappahannock Area Chapter offices. Find more information at redcross.org/take-a-class.

The American Heart Association also offers classes. Search for classes and locations on heart.org.

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