Turning tragedy into purpose, heart screening for youth becoming a reality for parents

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When Rhina Paredes met Kim Vandervliet, she told her, “We are part of a club that no one wants to belong to.” Both women had lost one of their children to sudden cardiac arrest, which claims the lives of 7,000 teens in the U.S. every year.

When Rhina Paredes met Kim Vandervliet, she told her, “We are part of a club that no one wants to belong to.” Both women had lost one of their children to sudden cardiac arrest, which claims the lives of 7,000 teens in the U.S. every year.

Paredes, a nurse of 20 years, is mom to Eric, a Steele Canyon sophomore who passed away in 2009 from an undetected heart condition. Within one year of Eric’s passing, she and her husband, Hector, had started an organization to save other children from Eric’s fate and to spare other families from enduring the loss of a child. Their vision was to offer free heart screenings to every child between ages 12-19. The Eric Paredes Save a Life Organization (EPSALO) has since screened nearly 12,000 teens for heart abnormalities with its last screening on June 1 at Granite Hills High School.

EPSALO is a well-oiled machine using precision and compassion that screens for potentially fatal heart abnormalities and conditions by performing EKGs on kids at local high schools. Almost 1,000 teens were registered for the screening at GHHS. EPSALO has had success raising funds and is volunteer-centered. Volunteers and EPSALO staff didn’t blink at the large influx of kids and their parents lining up throughout the six-hour screening. They were all smiles, encouraged at every person that lined up to be tested.

Because the numbers don’t lie. At each screening, 1-2 percent of children ages 12+ are identified for heart abnormalities and recommended for treatment. Add it up, and the ripple effect of each saved life and each family who will never regret going beyond the standard physician’s or high school physical is what keeps the Paredes family and their dedicated staff going.

“It’s never going to be over,” said Paredes, who wore a pin-on button of her son at the event.  Whether it is grieving for her son, or saving lives of teens, her statement gave a high momentum and energy to the screening event. Family members waiting outside the EKG rooms spoke to each other about why screenings like this never happened before EPSALO.

Family members like Cayla Vandervliet, daughter of Kim.

“We didn’t get to save my sister, but saving someone else is just as important,” said Vandervliet. The Vandervliet family volunteers with EPSALO and found an extended family within, not only with the Rhina and Hector Paredes.

“It helps our family heal,” said Vandervliet, whose sister, Ciara has been gone two years now. For the GHHS screening, she worked in the girls’ EKG room, where some kids got the thumbs up, and others referred to medical advisor Dr. John Rogers for an echocardiogram. The feeling of saving someone and their family from sudden cardiac arrest, Vandervliet described, is to be, “Overcome with joy…to save a family from the hurt that we have.”

Devin Lawson’s mother Erin heard about the Paredes’ program and decided to get her son an EKG after hearing about EPSALO. Because she followed a hunch, doctors found a hole in his heart, an atrial septal defect. He had open-heart surgery in October of his freshman year at Steele Canyon.

“I stopped sports, stopped everything,” Lawson said.

He waited on the sidelines of his school’s soccer team to play again. Then made the transition from sports to a club, which he created, his Teen Team, of which all members are certified in CPR, and work to train others.

“We help the [EPSALO] foundation out as much as we can,” said Lawson, whose parents also commit their time to volunteer. Teen Team is catching on at other schools also. St. Augustine’s has a club and the Valhalla Teen Team is in its beginning stages. 

Out of 840 people screened at GHHS on June 2, eight were found at risk from a heart abnormality they did not know they had.

“People truly believe what we’re doing is necessary” said Paredes.

Families of 832 kids got to breathe a sigh of relief when leaving GHHS that day. Eight other families received different news, but not too late, because Hector and Rhina Paredes resolved to save lives, in honor of their son’s life.

To find out about the next screening, log onto www.epsavealife.org. The next screening in East County is at Steele Canyon High School on November 2.

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