The simple wooden cross that for 15 years marked Gregory Moyer’s final resting place in a small Shawnee-on-Delaware cemetery was recently replaced by a slate headstone engraved with a basketball bearing the number 23, the number that appeared on Gregory’s Notre Dame (East Stroudsburg) High School jersey.
For Gregory’s parents, John and Rachel Moyer, the headstone was to signify the completion of a monumental goal: providing automated external defibrillators in every school across the country.
It was a goal born Dec. 2, 2000, the night Gregory collapsed during halftime of a basketball game at East Stroudsburg North High School in Pike County. Gregory, a 220-pound sophomore with an undiagnosed heart condition, died a short time later at the nearest hospital — 20 minutes away.
What if the school had an on-site defibrillator? Maybe their 15-year-old son’s life could have been saved.
Since then, the Moyer family has vowed to advocate for the widespread availability of defibrillators. They set up the Gregory W. Moyer Defibrillator Fund (www.gregaed.org) to raise money and provide AEDs to schools. The fund has given away more than 2,000 defibrillators in his name and publicity from the donations has led some businesses and organizations to buy more on their own.
Rachel Moyer, a former special education teacher in New York state who left her job in 2007 to focus on teaching weekly CPR and AED classes, estimates her family has trained more than 20,000 people how to use the devices.
The headstone was to be the final piece of closure. Instead it’s a bittersweet memorial, only because there is still so much more work to do.
“After 15 years, we recognize Gregory needs a headstone. This doesn’t mean we are giving up,” Rachel Moyer said.
Only 23 states require defibrillators in at least some of their schools, according to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that advocates for more access to AEDs.
The small, portable machines can deliver a potentially life-saving shock to those who go into sudden cardiac arrest, in addition to using an automated voice that guides the user on how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
To show they were serious about their objective, the Moyers, who live in Shawnee-on-Delaware, said they wouldn’t install a headstone on their son’s grave until every school in the country had an AED.
“I think we said every school because we thought it was such a slam dunk,” John Moyer said. “Why would you not protect your school’s greatest asset, the students? We figured it would spread like wildfire, but it hasn’t.”
More than 326,000 people experience cardiac arrest — an abrupt loss of heart function — each year, according to the American Heart Association. For every minute that passes without CPR or a shock from an AED, the chance of survival from cardiac arrest decreases by about 10 percent.
About 90 percent of those who go into sudden cardiac arrest outside a hospital setting die, often because bystanders don’t know how to start CPR or are afraid they will do something wrong, according to the association.
Of those who go into sudden cardiac arrest, 6,328 are like Gregory Moyer, younger than 18.
Gregory was an active teenager who underwent three sports physicals per year, but doctors missed the hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that eventually took his life, Rachel Moyer said. The boy who was known for his practical jokes and warm personality had an enlarged heart.
Cardiac arrest doesn’t only strike those who are being physically active, said Mary Newman, of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation. Even someone sitting at a desk can experience a sudden interruption to the electrical signals that control the heartbeat.
Unlike its neighbors to the north and east, Pennsylvania requires defibrillators in hotels and health clubs only. By comparison, New York requires them in health clubs, dental offices, swimming pools, places of public assembly and state buildings, as well as all schools. New Jersey requires them in all public and private K-12 schools, assisted living facilities, nursing homes and health clubs.
“It should be a no-brainer that you have AEDs in schools,” Newman said. “That’s where 20 percent of the population is on any given day, and cardiac arrest can strike anyone of any age”
Last year, Pennsylvania legislators approved Act 35, creating a registry of AEDs in public and private schools, including their age and condition. To assist schools, the state provides access to the machines at reduced costs. And it offers grants and tax credits to help schools buy them.
Although the Moyers see the law as a step in the right direction, they are fighting to mandate school districts to have the machines.
Fewer than half the state’s school districts have followed Act 35 in providing information to the state Department of Education. As of this month, 228 of the state’s 500 districts responded, the department said, along with 29 of 86 career and technical centers, 26 of 174 charter schools and 10 of the 29 intermediate units.
The school districts were required to provide the information by June 30, 2014, but the law did not include any penalty for non-compliance, said Nicole Reigelman, a department spokeswoman. The database is due to be updated next month.
It’s unclear how many of the 17 districts in Lehigh and Northampton counties have AEDs because less than half checked in with the state. Allentown, Bethlehem Area, Northwestern Lehigh, Parkland, Salisbury and the Whitehall-Coplay school districts responded to say they have AEDs and in which of their schools.
The Centennial School of Lehigh University, Circle of Seasons Charter School, Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Arts and Lehigh Career and Technical Institute also responded, as did the Colonial Intermediate Unit 20 and Colonial Intermediate Unit 21, which both service the Lehigh Valley.
In Lehigh Valley schools, AEDs range in age from 1 to 13 years old.
The cost and upkeep of the machines have likely played a role in the state’s decision not to mandate their use in schools. When the Moyers started their campaign, AEDs cost $3,300 each. They now cost $800 to $1,500.
The machine lasts about 10 years, but the batteries and sticky pads that attach to a patient’s chest to monitor the heartbeat and potentially deliver a shock must be replaced every few years at an additional cost.
Fear of liability is perhaps the biggest hurdle, though it’s unfounded, Jonathan Kirch of the American Heart Association said.
Many states, including Pennsylvania, have good Samaritan laws in place to protect those who make an AED available and use it in an emergency.
“Anyone who sees a cardiac emergency should come to the aid of the victim. Period,” Kirch said.
The association advocates that schools require students to take CPR training, including AED use before they graduate from high school.
So far, 27 states have made CPR training a requirement for graduation, including Delaware, New Jersey and New York.
Pennsylvania does not mandate the training. However, bills in the state Senate and House would make it a graduation requirement.
Rachel Moyer has grown weary of the delays but stays true to the “beat goes on” motto she and her husband follow in their campaign.
“I don’t know how to reach everyone,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like a hamster on a wheel. We keep going, hoping something will happen.”
Despite their frustrations, the Moyers’ accomplishments are impressive and they continue to do more.
Through the fund, the Moyers donated AEDs to all schools in Monroe County, where they raised Gregory and daughters Katie and Abbie.
They also gave one device to each of Pennsylvania’s 89 state police barracks.
Rachel Moyer was also instrumental in New York’s AED legislation. She lobbied legislators, answered questions and appeared on several TV programs to gain support for the statewide program.
Gregory lives on in the thousands of life-saving donations his family has made and will continue to make. In tribute, his parents had his headstone engraved with the words he said as he boarded the bus to what ended up being his last basketball game.
“Don’t worry guys, I’m here,” Rachel Moyer recalls him jokingly saying to his teammates as he arrived late for the bus.
“I think he purposefully left something for us to do,” Rachel Moyer said. “We are proactive, not reactive. You don’t want to wait until another kid dies.”
On Thursday, a day after the 15th anniversary of Gregory’s death, Rachel Moyer delivered two new AEDs to St. Jane Frances de Chantal School in Wilson. The K-8 school’s original AEDs were among the Moyers’ first donations.
Luckily, the school has never had to use them, said Charlie McGarvey, a physical education teacher there.
“You never know if a student or teacher may be in need and we are prepared if the situation arises,” he said.