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After losing son, Sonoma parents help protect teens’ hearts

After suffering an unbearable loss when their 16-year-old son’s heart stopped in summer 2016, the parents of Michael Brindley set out to protect other teens from a similar fate.

Almost six years to the day after Brindley’s death, their efforts helped save a teenager at Sonoma Valley High School.

On June 15, a 16-year-old collapsed while playing basketball at the school. His friends took heroic action, performing CPR and using an automated external defibrillator to keep his heart beating before help could arrive.

The boy was airlifted to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where he remained hospitalized as of June 22.

“Just to have it be a young man who was playing basketball,” said Kristy Brindley, Michael’s mother. “My son was playing basketball.”

Sports, she said, were where her son came to life. Michael tracked multiple teams and with his parent’s supervision launched his own sports blog when he was 13. Called Just1Mike, it amassed more than 100 posts before his death.

“His dream was to become a sports broadcaster,” she said. “He was just a beautiful boy with a promising future.”

Michael was thrilled to head to summer camp in 2016 outside of Chicago. “He was ready for the most magical summer,” his mother said.

One evening he was playing basketball, a good game with his friends by all accounts. There were coaches and counselors around, even a paramedic, but the camp was located by a rural lake, away from major medical centers.

“From what we heard, he threw the winning shot,” Brindley said. “And a short time later, he was in full cardiac arrest.”

Lifesaving measures were taken, but Michael could not be resuscitated. He died June 21, 2016.

“It changes every piece of you,” Brindley said of losing her son. “We formed this foundation to honor him.”

Launched in 2017, the Just1Mike Foundation offers electrocardiogram heart screenings to high school students. While heart attacks are not commonly associated with teenagers, cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in student athletes, according to the Mayo Clinic.

An EKG test can detect “up to 70% of cases that put kids at risk for sudden death,” Brindley said. “So much of what we do is trying to build awareness about something people don’t know much about.”

It was important to Michael’s parents to screen his graduating class. Ultimately, the foundation tested any student who wanted an EKG at his west Chicago high school. Of the 1,900 students screened, 13 learned they had heart conditions, many of which required treatment.

“It was a lifesaving day for many families,” Brindley said.

She said the program has detected at least one heart condition at each of the other 10 schools screened. EKG testing remains the major focus of Just1Mike, and something the family hopes to bring next year to Sonoma Valley High School.

But when the pandemic set in and EKGs became more complicated to administer, the foundation pivoted to donating AEDs.

Most school campuses are equipped with these lifesaving devices, which help to restart a heart in cardiac arrest. However, often the machines are locked up in an office and out of reach after hours. The Brindleys are working to make them ubiquitous and easily accessed by anyone.

Two years ago, Bob and Kristy Brindley moved to Sonoma. Last summer, during a garden party leading up to the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation’s Red & White Ball, they were encouraged to tell Michael’s story and share their plans to place one AED tower at Sonoma Valley High’s athletic complex.

“We had walked by the sports complex being built, and we wanted to contribute to that,” Brindley said. “Especially because of our son’s love of sports.”

Attendees were so inspired that night, the donations came flooding in, and Just1Mike was able to contribute four full AED towers to Sonoma Valley High. Three were installed in March at the football field, inside the gym and at the outdoor basketball court.

The final tower will be placed at the new pool when it is completed in August.

No one could have predicted how quickly one of the machines would be used to save a teen in need. When the teen, who is not being named because of his age, collapsed last week on the basketball court, the AED machine was steps away, glowing bright red so it was easily seen by his friend.

“We’re just so thankful everything went the way it was supposed to,” Brindley said. “We’re incredibly thankful that our beautiful son was able to save others’ lives.”

Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent Adrian Palazuelos added, “(I) wanted to be sure that I did not miss an opportunity to express how proud I am of these young men who acted so quickly and responsibly, and to draw attention to our intentional efforts to expand our community’s access to lifesaving automatic external defibrillators.”

Brindley and Palazuelos both pointed out the AED machine is accessible to anyone in the community. They will host a ribbon cutting for the new machines when the final AED is installed in August.

After launching in Chicago, the Just1Mike Foundation is just getting started in this region. In addition to the health screenings planned for high school students, it recently donated eight mobile AEDs to the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley, for use in the club and at its popular summer camps and sports programs.

“Ensuring child safety is fundamental to the mission of Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley, which is why we were and remain so grateful to the Just1Mike Foundation for generously supplying an AED unit for each of our eight Sonoma Valley locations,” said Michael irvine, vice president of development and marketing. “Because of their support, at all times our members will be in very close proximity to a potentially lifesaving device, and we’ve all recently seen what a difference a readily available AED can make in the life of a child in cardiac distress.”

Learn more about the Just1Mike Foundation at just1mike.org, where donations can be made.

Contact editor/publisher Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@sonomanews.com.

This article has been updated to correct the age of the teen patient who was saved on June 15.

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