14-year-old Louis Acompora played his first and last high school lacrosse game on March 25, 2000. Louis was named the captain of the freshman team at Northport High School in New York, and was a promising goalie. During the game, he blocked what looked to be a routine shot with his chest. He took a few steps, and collapsed on the field. Coaches and trainers rushed to administer CPR while the paramedics were called, but by the time they arrived and attempted defibrillation, 15 minutes later, it was too late.
“Louis played lacrosse his entire life, his whole life, he started playing in second grade,” his mother, Karen Acompora said. “As a parent, you expect certain injuries; lacrosse is a contact sport. You never, ever, in your wildest dreams imagine that something like this could happen.”
The Acomporas later learned that Louis’ death was caused by commotio cordis, a syndrome that results from a blunt, non-penetrating blow to the chest at a critical time in the heartbeat cycle, causing cardiac arrest. Commotio cordis is an electrical interruption of the heart, and the only way to reverse it is with an AED. Commotio cordis is most common in young boys who have been hit in the chest during sporting activities, with or without a chest protector or existing conditions.
His death could have been prevented if the school had owned an automatic external defibrillator (AED), a device that revives cardiac arrest victims with a shock to the chest. Since time is of the essence during cardiac arrest, having an AED on-site could have made the difference for Louis.
“Back in 2000, there weren’t AED machines with coaches and athletic trainers. Most police cars and ambulances didn’t have them in the vehicle, “ Karen Acompora said. “EMT didn’t arrive until 15 minutes after Louis collapsed; he didn’t have a chance.”
After their son’s death, the Acomporas said they felt they had to act. They, with support from their family and friends, started the Louis J. Acompora Memorial Foundation (also called LA12) and worked to pass Louis’ Law.
“We felt that we didn’t have a choice, we had to do something,” his father, John Acompora said.
Their efforts have resulted in impactful legislation. Louis’ Law, signed in 2002, mandates that all public schools in New York state be equipped with AEDs in their buildings and at all sporting events.
As a result of their efforts, 85 lives have been saved in the state of New York to date. Since 2001, four lacrosse players’ lives have been saved.
“85 lives have been saved in New York state schools,“ John Acompora said. “85, at least, that Karen has been able to document. This doesn’t account for situations like police officers being able to help someone because an AED machine is in the car, situations like that.”
Today, the LA12 Foundation is a non-profit organization committed to improving sports safety with a special emphasis on placing AEDs in all schools and youth league organizations. Karen Acompora serves as the organization’s president and John Acompora is the vice president. Their family, friends and members of the community serve as volunteers and board members. A survivor of commodio cortis is also on the board of directors.
A big part of LA12’s mission is education, ensuring that coaches and trainers are not only CPR and AED trained, but they also need know where the AED machine is kept in the event of cardiac arrest, whether the victim is a parent on the sidelines or a player on the field. “It’s not just about purchasing the AED. There’s protocol to go along with it,” John Acompora said.
John said continuing education is the key to lasting impact. When children age out of the youth recreational leagues, younger parents and coaches also need to be educated to keep the community’s safety standards high.
“There are by-laws in our community that require AED and CPR training,” he said. “We’ve been teaching our class for 8-9 years, and we’ve had people come back, several times, and retake our course.”
LA 12 has been the agent of many significant changes over the last 15 years, and there is still work to be done. A lot of that work includes raising and maintaining safety standards across the sport, in recreational leagues and in schools.
Karen Acompora said there are no consistent standards for pre-participation physicals across the country. Many of them don’t ask about the child’s family history of cardiac conditions. So LA12 also offers free heart screenings through New York’s public schools. The majority of heart conditions in youth go undetected unless the child is symptomatic and even then, the symptoms are often dismissed or the child is misdiagnosed.
US Lacrosse and CardiacScience have been working together, with grants and educational resources, to get more US Lacrosse members AED machines.
LA12 partners with other organizations, including the American Heart Association and Parent Heart Watch to spread awareness about cardiac conditions.
“It’s education. The more educated people are, the better,” John Acompora said. “You have to do the best you can. The athletes deserve a certain standard, and it’s unacceptable to have uneven [safety] standards across youth, high school and college sports. Time, effort and money need to be put into that training.”