Imagine a dad saying ‘see ya’ to his three young kids before running off to play an afternoon of football with his local team. Now imagine that two thirds of the way through the game he falls to the pitch with a severe pain in his chest … never to rise again.

This scenario is clearly extreme, but sadly it’s happening, not just to dads but to other individuals, too. Some young, mostly older – however, in reality, heart attacks don’t tend to discriminate much. And when they occur on the field, they are never anticipated.

In fact, it was only in 2014 that former SBS presenter and player for the Forest Rangers Football Club Andy Paschalidis watched his mate Matt Richardson collapse on the pitch at Gannon’s Park in Peakhurst and die. Matt was only 43 years old and will never see his wife and three small children again.

It was this shocking occurrence, along with a number of similar cases, that has driven Andy’s desire to save hearts on the field via his Heartbeat of Football initiative. He also simply loves the game of football and has been involved in surf lifesaving, too, which has encouraged an interest in health and safety.

Heart disease is the single leading cause of death in Australia. And each year, about 54,000 Australians suffer a heart attack – this equates to one every nine minutes!

The risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD) include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, too much weight, lack of exercise, low fruit and vegetable intake, drinking alcohol and smoking. It’s quite amazing that nine in 10 adults have at least one risk factor for CVD and a quarter have three or more risk factors. Here are some more of the latest stats (2011/2012) from the Heart Foundation.

  • 4.6 million adults (32%) have high blood pressure.
  • One third of adults (5.6 million) have known high cholesterol.
  • One in six Australians aged 15 years and over smoke daily.
  • Nearly two in every three (63%) adults are overweight or obese, with 27.5% obese and 35.3% overweight. Adult males are more likely to be overweight or obese than adult females.
  • More than a third (39%) of those over 15 years of age do very little or no exercise at all.

Andy plans to tackle several areas of health and safety in his campaign, including senior player health education, CPR training for all coaches and refs (players too, if they’re willing) and, finally, but not least importantly, defibrillators made available on all sporting fields.

He believes educating senior players is vital. ‘Many of these men were good players when they were young but come back to play in later years when they are unfit, and some are smokers,’ Andy explains. ‘They’re still better players than the others, but are exerting themselves in ways they haven’t done for years. They look like they’re cruising because they are talented, but they are actually at risk of collapsing.’

Andy would like to see all at-risk older players take a mandatory heart stress test before being allowed to play. Stress testing provides information about how the heart works during physical stress and can detect the following problems, which may suggest that a heart isn’t getting enough blood during exercise.

  • Abnormal changes in your heart rate or blood pressure.
  • Symptoms, such as shortness of breath or chest pain, especially if they occur at low levels of exercise.
  • Abnormal changes in your heart’s rhythm or electrical activity.

The test is pain-free – you have monitor leads stuck to various parts of your torso and arms, then you walk or run on a treadmill or pedal a stationary bike to make your heart work hard and beat fast. Tests are done on your heart while you are doing the exercise.

‘There are those who believe a mandatory stress test will overload the medical system,’ says Andy. ‘But we shouldn’t be worrying about that; we should be more concerned about saving lives.’

While cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training is a no-brainer when it comes to potentially saving someone with a heart problem, it does need to be performed correctly to have any benefit. Some studies have found that as little as one in 20 people who have a cardiac arrest survive, even with CPR. However, using a defibrillator can make a significant difference.

A defibrillator analyses the activity of the heart – whether it’s beating too slow, too fast, or not at all – and delivers an electric shock to ‘jolt’ it back to normal again. This is clearly better than CPR alone, but you don’t want to be running around trying to find a defib and not performing CPR, or you’ll be wasting lifesaving minutes. In essence, both is better – one study found that using a CPR-defib combo improved the survival rate over CPR alone (23 per cent versus 14 per cent). And while it’s helpful to be shown how to use a defib, Andy says they are very simple to use as the modern machines ‘talk you through’ every step of the way.

Automated external defibrillators (AEDs) cost $2000-3000 each. Not a small amount, but certainly not out of reach. Andy’s long-term aim is to ensure every sporting field has a defibrillator on site so that it doesn’t matter what sport is being played, there is lifesaving technology at hand. He is currently working with corporate sponsors to achieve this goal and is impressed by those already willing to help out.

This is only the beginning for Andy Paschalidis, and his determination to save lives is truly heartwarming. His goal is not going to happen overnight but, when it does, he will surely receive a standing ovation from players and everyone on the sidelines.

A man full of heart: Andy Paschalidis.

A man full of heart: Andy Paschalidis.

You can do your bit to help by signing a petition for Federal Minister for Health Sussan Ley to introduce a national defibrillator program for sporting fields across the nation.

What are your thoughts about placing defibrillators on all sporting fields? And also about CPR training and mandatory stress tests? Share your opinions in the comments section below.

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