This time of year is always hard for the Berkeley High class of 1974 boys basketball team.
“A Valentine’s day doesn’t go by without me thinking about those 15 guys I played with,” said Kenny Walter, former guard.
Forty years ago in February, 17-year-old Greg Brown, the leading scorer on the team, died from sudden cardiac arrest in the middle of a game.
It was in honor of Brown — and the installation of seven automated external defibrillators (AEDs) at Berkeley High that might have been able to save the athlete’s life — that members of the ’74 team gathered together on the court once again, during the varsity boys victorious Feb. 7 game against San Leandro High.
Cindy Chang, former head team physician at UC Berkeley and doctor to Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics, led the effort to get AEDs at the high school.
“What I came to realize is the school had great disaster plans for an earthquake and for a gun on campus, but it didn’t have a really good emergency response plan,” said Chang, who saw a UC Berkeley basketball player successfully resuscitated with an AED when she worked at the university.
The untimely death of Cal footballer Ted Agu last week while in a training session was a reminder that tragedy can strike at any time. In that case, a defibrillator was unable to save him.
Chang and others will train all staff and volunteer coaches to use the devices. She hopes to eventually offer voluntary training to all staff.
“Twice as many people will survive a cardiac arrest when responders are trained and equipped with AEDs and CPR, compared to CPR alone,” Chang said.
AEDs measure a person’s heart rhythm and alert a rescuer when a shock is required. Typically, the device advises the rescuer to perform CPR after the shock.
Because AEDs cost up to $2,000, Chang solicited donations for new and refurbished devices. The seven permanent and three portable AEDs at Berkeley High come from locations as varied as the San Jose Airport and the Santa Clara school district.
“I don’t say no,” Chang said.
“We’re receiving a gift,” said Berkeley High Principal Pasquale Scuderi at Friday’s game.
During half time, Brown’s teammates also announced the establishment of the Greg Brown Memorial Fund, which will be dedicated to Student Health and Safety programs, including the maintenance of the AED program.
National deaths from sudden cardiac arrest among student athletes are not tracked, but, according to the American Heart Association, there are over 250,000 annual American deaths — at least 20,000 of which could be prevented by the use of an AED.
Few states require AEDs at schools. “There are many states that have recommendations that schools have them, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Chang said. “If there’s no one taking the reins for a program like this, it doesn’t happen. Other people on school campuses are overworked.”
And even with Chang’s tireless advocacy, it took several years for the program to launch at Berkeley High.
“I think it was because there was a lot of fear of the unknown, about getting defibrillators on campus and the potential liability if it wasn’t used properly or the equipment expired,” she said. To address these concerns, information signs will be installed across campus, charts with the locations of the AEDs will be placed in classrooms, and all staff will be notified.
At Friday’s game, Chang addressed parents and students, explaining that an AED will only deliver a shock if it detects the need for one. “Kids can’t use it to play around and shock each other — so don’t try it!” she warned.
Brown’s teammates, now in their 50s, stayed for the game, reminiscing and chatting cheerfully in the bleachers.
“As soon as I heard about this I got on the phone and started calling everybody that I knew was local, and they all showed up,” Walter said. “When we see each other we act like we saw each other yesterday. We have always loved each other.”
Former center Scott Stewart traveled from Reno, Nevada to pay tribute to his teammate, whom he thinks about often. “We never expected to see someone our own age die,” Stewart said. “That maybe could have been prevented had something like this been available 40 years ago.”
Although tragedies like Brown’s are not tracked, it’s clear that they’re rare.
“It’s estimated that sudden cardiac arrest occurs at one out of every 200 high schools annually, but most of the deaths happen in adults who are on campus,” Chang said. “These defibrillators are not just for the athletes. There’s going to be one in the Community Theater. They’re for the people who are going to be on campus for any event, so I really want the community to get engaged.”
Phase two of the project will see AEDs spread to the district’s athletic facilities throughout Berkeley, and will possibly involve a collaboration with the City to place them at public facilities too, Chang said.
By the end of the month, all seven AED’s will be installed across the Berkeley High Campus, including at the basketball court, where a flag in the shape of Brown’s jersey — number 44 — already hangs in memory of the young athlete.