PA Alum Raises Awareness of Sudden Cardiac Arrest in Youth

By Purnell T. Cropper | April 26, 2012

Nine years ago Renee Langstaff received a life-changing phone call from a social worker telling her that her newborn goddaughter, Sydney, was on a ventilator. She didn’t know it at the time, but that experience would later fuel a desire to prevent sudden cardiac death in youth.

Sydney was born with heart defects that had previously gone undetected. “She was on a ventilator, and we didn’t know if she was going to survive,” said Langstaff. “I had a glimpse as to maybe what it was like for a family to lose a child to an unsuspected heart condition. My family was very fortunate. After an extensive heart surgery and close cardiology follow up, my niece is alive and well. But there are many families out there who have not been spared that pain.”

Langstaff had always been interested in cardiology. It was what brought her to Arcadia University’s Physician Assistant Program for a master’s degree. Prior to her admission, she had been practicing as a physical therapist for six years. But in that role, Langstaff persistently found herself going beyond her clinical responsibilities, asking why things had gone wrong with her patients from a medical prospective.

“I was never able to find quite the right fit,” she said. “I was more interested in why… and unless I was able to satisfy that interest on a daily basis, I wouldn’t be happy.”

Intrigued by the puzzle of diagnosis, Langstaff returned to school. “I thought it had a great reputation and offered an advanced degree, which I wanted,” said Langstaff of her Arcadia decision.

Langstaff went on to become the president of Arcadia University’s first Physician Assistant (PA) class and graduate with distinction. Her resume is lined with predominantly cardiology experience for the past 13 years. She even came back to Arcadia for several years as a Clinical Coordinator and Assistant Professor in the program.

And then the tragic story of Wes Leonard hit the news and sparked Langstaff’s passion to understand and help prevent cardiac arrests in youth.

“I was reading the news and heard about how this young, vibrant athlete took the winning shot at a basketball game, celebrated with his team and moments later collapsed,” remembers Langstaff.

“Everyone insisted he was dehydrated,” she added, certain she would have agreed with that assumption. “At the time I have to say I would have thought the same… Cardiac arrest would have most likely been the last thing on my mind.”

Unfortunately, that was exactly the case, and Wes didn’t survive. Langstaff’s experience with her goddaughter, Sydney, drove her to again ask, “Why?” She soon realized there was yet another path ahead of her that she needed to follow.

“When I first told my colleagues that I wanted children to be screened for cardiac problems that put them at risk for sudden cardiac death, I was told, ‘You can’t screen every child…’

“Can’t isn’t in my vocabulary,” asserted Langstaff.

She has since gone on to develop Sidz Kidz, an LLC named after her goddaughter, with the sole mission of preventing sudden cardiac death in youth. The plan is to address the issue in three ways: by offering cardiac screenings, promoting availability of Automatic Defibrillators (AEDs) in schools and providing education to parents and to the community.

Langstaff says that cardiac screening and implementation of AED emergency plans have proven to significantly reduce the incidence of cardiac death. She has since found a partner in Joel DeJong of Sportlink, Inc.

DeJong, founder and president of Sportlink, hopes that his screening service can benefit the Sidz Kidz mission. They plan to unite their efforts in putting optional cardiac screening in the hands of parents across the country.

Now, backed with extensive research, Langstaff hopes to educate athletic trainers, physicians, parents, teachers, coaches and children alike about the threat of unsuspected cardiac death and the steps that can be taken to prevent it, namely by promoting increased AED awareness and emergency preparedness.

“For every minute after 90 seconds in arrest without being shocked, the child’s survival chances significantly decreases,” said Langstaff. “It’s a matter of not assuming [a child’s collapse] is overexertion… and everyone has to know it’s an issue.”

Langstaff prepares for the road ahead with goals set to improve preparation for youth sudden cardiac arrests.

Looking back fondly on her time as a faculty member at Arcadia, she is grateful for the privilege to come back to where she started. “I have a lot of respect for [my colleagues at Arcadia] because they’ve been very supportive professionally and personally.

“Every decision made at Arcadia University is made in the best interest of our students to make them the best PAs they can be.”