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Family's loss sparks life-saving campaign

October 1, 2012 12:10 am

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A photo of Gwyneth Griffin and some of her personal items are kept together as family keepsakes. The teenager died after she collapsed outside a Stafford middle school. lo092612cpr.jpg

Gwyneth Griffin died in July after weeks in a Richmond hospital. lo092612CPRram3.jpg

Ainsley and her parents, Joel and Jennifer Griffin, want school employees in Stafford to get CPR certification so they can respond quickly to emergencies like the one that led to Gwyneth's death. lo092612CPRram1.jpg

Ainsley Griffin says goodbye to her father, Joel, before school. Ainsley's older sister, Gwyneth, died after she collapsed on the track of her North Stafford middle school in June. No one at the school started CPR.

BY KATIE THISDELL

BY KATIE THISDELL

On a humid Friday morning in June, Gwyneth Griffin was running with her classmates on the track at A.G. Wright Middle School.

Excitement was high for the seventh-graders since SOL tests were over and summer was about to start.

Gwyneth's father, Joel Griffin, was visiting both of his daughters' schools that day. Neighboring Garrisonville Elementary was his second stop.

But a little after 10 a.m. on June 8, the middle school students ran to find Gwyneth's dad.

The 12-year-old had collapsed. Her heart had apparently stopped; she had no pulse and wasn't breathing.

By the time Griffin got to her side, about 10 minutes had passed. No one had started CPR, and EMTs were on the phone but hadn't yet arrived.

"There was no one else taking care of my daughter, so I had to," said Joel, during an interview with his wife, Jennifer, in their North Stafford home.

The couple now knows that the first two minutes are the most critical for getting oxygen to the brain. Otherwise, severe damage can occur.

After spending nearly two months at VCU Medical Center, Gwyneth died at the end of July.

"Those two minutes may have made the difference and she could be here today," Joel said.

The lack of immediate response to save their eldest daughter's life has led the Griffins to press for school employees who work with students in Stafford County to be CPR certified. They hope one day training will be required for teachers statewide under what could be called "Gwyneth's Law," to ensure that schools have the resources they need in emergency situations.

"The teachers are in many ways the first responders," Joel Griffin told the Board of Supervisors' public safety committee recently.

So far, county officials and supervisors have responded positively to the proposal.

"We should have thought of this sooner," County Supervisor Jack Cavalier said recently. He promised to seek financial support for CPR training, which could cost $45,000 a year.

However, School Board Chairwoman Stephanie Johnson said she couldn't comment on the proposal until after reviewing current policies. The Joint Schools Working Committee will take up the issue soon.

Students at A.G. Wright Middle School have pushed for CPR classes, which could be offered to families this fall through support from the Fire & Rescue Department, said principal William Boatwright.

A 'FRIEND FOR LIFE'

Gwyneth was born with a heart murmur, but cardiologists consistently gave her a clean bill of health.

They told her parents that 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 blond preteen danced with Patrick McGrath School of Irish Dance and was a member of the National Junior Honor Society.

Her parents said she was always happy--and wanted to make sure everyone else was, too.

She was friends with all sorts of kids. The Griffins, who live in Heritage Oaks, have heard from other parents that Gwyneth was important in their children's lives.

One young man told Joel that Gwyneth was genuinely interested in making sure he had a good day--others mostly asked him for homework help.

"She met you once, you were her friend for life. She didn't see colors, she didn't see disabilities or social status," said her mother, Jennifer. "She saw people for who they were."

'A CATASTROPHIC EVENT'

For two months after collapsing in June, Gwyneth struggled to recover.

The Griffins chronicled her condition for family and friends on CaringBridge.org. At first, her body was getting stronger; doctors thought she could be self-sufficient by the end of June, after a medicated coma. But she never woke up on her own.

Nurses gave her manicures and pedicures. Her mom styled her hair and turned on her favorite music and TV shows. Therapy dogs visited, as did family members with musical instruments.

She turned 13 on June 26, and had her braces removed soon after.

On July 3, her parents wrote, "We treat the symptoms and respond to the signs that her body is giving us, but we have reached the threshold of medical knowledge regarding how to repair a brain that has suffered such a catastrophic event. We did want each of you that care for Gwyneth as we do, to know that she is no longer able to share her spirit with us except in our hearts and memories."

They were looking at long-term care facilities. Then on July 30, Gwyneth passed away.

EXPANDED TRAINING

Virginia code requires that in each public school building, two people be certified in first-aid and CPR every two years. With hundreds of students in each of Stafford County's schools, the Griffins worry the requirement is too minimal to be effective.

The American Heart Association encourages anyone working with children to be properly trained in CPR.

Since Gwyneth's collapse, most of the staff at Garrisonville Elementary and A.G. Wright Middle schools have learned CPR, along with many of Gwyneth's friends. Students in the graduating class of 2017 made a pact to be CPR certified before they receive their diplomas.

For principal Boatwright, offering classes to the community makes sense.

"It's something I've been thinking about for a while," said Boatwright, who performed CPR on a custodian who was having a heart attack at the school several years ago.

He's working with Mark Doyle of the county's fire and rescue department to offer reduced-price classes, perhaps on Saturdays.

"The students asked about it--I had never thought about it for students," Boatwright said. "They wanted something tangible they could do to contribute to the community and remember their classmate in a positive way."

But the Griffins say the students shouldn't have to carry that weight at school.

"We can't stop children from getting sick and hurt. We can't stop children from dying. But we can improve individuals' ability to respond appropriately and in a timely manner," said Joel, 38, co-founder of Rosslyn-based Dependable Global Solutions, a defense contractor.

Jennifer, 42, teaches at Red Apple Preschool, and used to work in the county schools, so the Griffins know the pressures that teachers face. Teachers can't be superheroes, the couple noted--they're already stretched to act as social workers, parents, educators and psychologists.

The Griffins want to make CPR courses count toward teacher re-certification.

Ultimately, they want "Gwyneth's Law" to save the lives of children or adults in schools. In addition to CPR certification for all staff that interact with students, they are pushing for further requirements. They include:

Establish a rapid response team in each school for emergencies. The team, which would have emergency training, would provide relief until EMTs arrive.

Modify existing drills to include CPR exercises, which could be needed after tornado and fire situations.

Require AEDs--or automated external defibrillators--in all schools, and train teachers how to use them.

Incorporate CPR training into curriculum for students.

"If we just do little things to save people's lives, that would make Gwyneth happy to have something done that helps someone else," Joel Griffin said. "She would have been overjoyed."

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975
Email: kthisdell@freelancestar.com




Susan Hulsey, a CPR instructor in Stafford, hopes more people learn life-saving techniques. She has been offering reduced-rate classes in memory of Gwyneth Griffin, who was in her son's elementary school classes. She said Gwyneth had a "smile that could light up the world" and was her son's first crush.

Most of the fees she collects have gone to Ronald McDonald House Charities in Richmond and to VCU Medical Center.

She offers reduced rates "so that scout leaders, coaches, nursery volunteers will come and get certified, even if it isn't required."

The American Red Cross offers regular CPR classes at its Rappahannock Area Chapter offices. The American Heart Association also offers classes at the Mary Washington Hospital.

Stafford's Fire & Rescue Department is partnering with A.G. Wright Middle School to provide low-cost classes to students, their families and other community organizations. Plans are still in the works.




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