AYER-SHIRLEY -- The number-one killer among healthy young athletes is sudden cardiac arrest.
Every three days, someone goes into sudden cardiac arrest, or SCA, and each year, more than 400,000 people die from it.
When it occurs, an electrical shock from an automated external defibrillator, or AED, is the only effective treatment, but only if administered within three to six minutes.
Nobody knows that better than John and Luann Ellsessar, of Sutton, who lost their 16-year-old son, Michael, in 2010 due to a blow to the chest during a football game that put him into SCA. The ambulance arrived 15 minutes later, and it was too late.
Four weeks later, Tyler Symes, of Milford, was struck by a hockey puck, putting him into SCA. An AED was on the bench at the New England Sports Center in Marlboro, and Symes was shocked back to health within three minutes.
Grace Soultanian, 12, of Shirley, heard about Michael's story and decided to do something about it. Through essay contests, grants and fundraising, Grace has raised more than $5,000 to purchase AEDs to be placed at playing fields, town beaches and town pools in the Ayer-Shirley area to ensure that what happened to Michael will not happen here.
"An AED needs to be part of a team, it needs to be on the bench or on the field," John Ellsessar said. "People are like, 'Oh, there's one at the school.' But would you be able to make it to the school, get the AED, and get back to the field in order to administer it in six minutes? No.
Many confuse cardiac arrest and a heart attack and think they are the same thing, but "a heart attack is about plumbing where cardiac arrest is more electrical," John Ellsessar said.
He explained that a heart attack is when the muscles around your heart are cramping, and cardiac arrest is when your heartbeat is "skipping like a record and needs to be shocked back into its rhythm."
There are no warning signs for SCA, allowing any athlete to be at risk.
"Our goal is to raise awareness and to limit the time between knowing it's happening and reacting," Luann Ellsessar said.
Ensuring that what happened to Michael will not happen in Ayer or Shirley, Grace began her Youth Venture project last fall and decided that educating the area about SCA would be her focus. She decided to name it Heartstrong and raised more than $2,200 on her website with two friends, Jackie Stiles and Allie Cebollero.
Grace started her research with Parent Heart Watch. According to its website, Parent Heart Watch "is a state-by-state network of parents and partners solely dedicated to reducing the often disastrous effects of sudden cardiac arrest in youth."
Parent Heart Watch hosted an essay contest in which the prize was an AED. Grace entered a story about Michael Ellsessar and why his story touched her so deeply. Her essay placed among the top three nationally, then went on to win the contest. She won an AED and other goods worth $2,000.
Grace also won a $1,000 grant through a presentation to United Way, but it didn't stop there. She went further and organized bake sales and sold wristbands for the cause.
On July 13, Grace worked with Ayer-Shirley Broncos coaches and cheerleaders to get them CPR-certified. She is also working on raising awareness about heart health.
"Through saying the statistics, I am desperately trying to get a heart screening in my town and community so kids can come in and be hooked up to an EKG machine and it can tell them if they have an underlying heart condition or if they need to go see a doctor," she said. "It could save someone's life."
After a year of hard work, Grace has donated AEDs to Sandy Pond Beach in Ayer and Taylor Field in Shirley, and she plans to keep going.
She plans to donate an AED to Ayer's Pirone Park on Sept. 14, the opening day of soccer season.
"I really just want to get as many as possible," she said.
Grace encourages others to get involved and said every little bit counts. "Anything you can do, it helps."