Warriors’ Ronny Turiaf donates defibrillators to prevent deaths among high school athletes
on February 23, 2010
After an enlarged aortic root nearly kept him from his dream of playing NBA basketball, Warriors’ center Ronny Turiaf learned how dangerous heart problems could be. Now, in the wake of three recent cardiac emergencies on East Bay high school basketball courts, Turiaf is donating automatic electronic defibrillators (AEDs) and CPR training to four local high schools. “As someone who has been affected directly by a heart health issue, it is important for me to assist others in their efforts to prepare for a heart trauma incident,” Turiaf said.
Since October, two Bay Area student athletes have died while playing basketball, and one survived a near-lethal cardiac arrest. Joshua Ellison, the 17 year-old co-captain of El Sobrante Calvary Christian Academy, collapsed on the court and died on January 29. De La Salle freshman Darius Jones, 14, died during a preseason basketball camp at Diablo Valley College on October 11. A third student, El Cerrito High School sophomore David Gurganious, went into cardiac arrest on February 2 while sitting on the bench, but was saved by CPR administered by his basketball coach, who is a Richmond police officer, and parents in the stands.
The three schools, along with Oakland’s Life Academy High School, will each receive defibrillators, as well as AED and CPR training for ten staff members and CPR training for 30 students. The donation, which was announced Tuesday on the basketball court of Oakland’s Leonard J. Meltzer Boys and Girls Club, comes from the Ronny Turiaf Heart to Heart Foundation, which Turiaf established in 2009 to help provide medical care for children without health insurance. Through the foundation, Turiaf hopes to provide EKGs, heart surgeries and defibrillators to kids in need.
About 100 students attended Tuesday’s event, along with representatives from the schools, the American Heart Association and Cardiac Science, the company that manufactures the defibrillators and provides training. Some members of the audience also wore black armbands with “Josh #1” in white writing in honor of Ellison.
“I don’t get nervous very often,” Turiaf said. “I play in front of 20,000 people.” But he said that talking about things that matter to him, in front of a crowd that was mostly composed of high school students, as well as some parents, coaches and younger kids in Warriors apparel, was a little more nerve-wracking.
Kent Mercer, head athletic trainer De La Salle, a private Catholic school in Concord, is glad to have the defibrillator, particularly after the death of Jones, whose “dream was to play basketball at La Salle,” he said.
“It’s a great thing that they’re doing to have something in place to save somebody—not only students at the school, but anyone who comes to the school,” Mercer said. “Hopefully, it continues to spread.”
El Cerrito High School Assistant principal Marcos Garcia said he will be relieved to have a defibrillator on campus, even though coaches at El Cerrito have already been trained in CPR. “The health and safety of our students is our utmost concern,” he said. “We’re very grateful.”
As for Gurganious, the sophomore who survived cardiac arrest thanks to quick action by coach Michael Booker, he was released from the hospital last week, and is expected to make a full recovery. “We want to bring him back slowly,” Garcia said.
“It’s a whole transition between collapsing on the basketball court and going back to a full academic load,” said Kenny Kahn, head football coach at El Cerrito High and Gurganious’s creative writing teacher. “I’m looking forward to his poems and creative writing—he’s quite the poet.”
Dr. Junaid Khan, a heart surgeon at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland and president of the East Bay division of the American Heart Association, addressed the students directly, telling them not to be too scared about sudden cardiac arrest: it’s highly unusual in teens, he said, and very rare to see three cases at the same time in the same area. Chances are better that a young person would die in a car accident, or of cancer, Khan said. “It’s like lightening striking the same place twice,” he said. “It’s that rare. In a 26 year period, there were only 30 events around the country.”
But, when it does happen, CPR and defibrillators increase survival rates significantly. Only five percent of people survive sudden cardiac arrest without CPR or defibrillation. With CPR, the odds go up to 30 percent. If a defibrillator is present, they go up to 50 percent. “Automatic defibrillators really are the key to saving lives,” Khan said. “These things are so easy to use. Just put them on and they do the rest of the work. But the devices alone, not including the training to use them, can cost between $1,500 and $2,500.
Brett Reisner, a representative from Cardiac Science who lost his own brother to sudden cardiac death, applauded Turiaf for his donation, and advocated for a new State Assembly bill that would require schools to have defibrillators available at sports contests and practices. The bill is co-sponsored by State Assembly Members Mary Hayashi (D-Hayward) and Jerry Hill (D-Castro Valley). “Fourteen states in the US have laws requiring AEDs in schools,” he said. “California is not one of them. We need to support bill 1647.”
Turiaf started his charity, the Ronny Turiaf Heart to Heart Foundation, in 2009, but he had been thinking about starting a charity for a long time. “I played basketball my whole life to make a living for my family,” said Turiaf. “In 2005, I finally signed a contract. I thought everything was perfect.”
Two days after he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2005, Turiaf, now 27, was diagnosed with an enlarged aortic root during a physical exam. His doctor, Stanford surgeon Craig Miller, told him had two options: quit basketball, or have surgery. Turiaf told the crowd of students that Miller told him to have the surgery, and that he had “confidence in my ability to get you back on track.”
Turiaf believed him. “If the guy that’s going to open me up like a lobster tells me I’m going to be able to play basketball again, I have confidence in myself to do the rest,” he said.
The open-heart surgery lasted six hours, and Turiaf was back on the court in less than six months. “After I went through my surgery,” he said, “I told myself that if one day I was financially stable enough, I would do whatever I could to give back to the community.”
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