Fighting for Tanner with School AED Laws
“Grief is like war. I either win or I die trying. This AED war is something I won’t lose. It’s the last thing I can do for my son Tanner. And I will get it done.”
These were Rhonda Harrill’s words shared after the passage of legislation mandating AEDs in all of Tennessee’s 1800 public schools. Rhonda’s legislative victories are both impressive and numerous. After her son Tanner passed due to Sudden Cardiac Arrest playing basketball, Rhonda has single-handedly advanced legislation in Tennessee to protect kids with cardiac emergency drills and accessible AEDs. Hear Rhonda share Tanner’s story and how she continues to fight for him.
Rhonda Harrill: I would still have a child if that AED was used. It could be your kid, your grandkid, it could be the mom, your dad, it could be anybody. And you can’t say it will never happen to you because I never even heard of Sudden Cardiac Arrest until it happened to Tanner. I’ve always said if you’re going to have fire drills, EpiPens if you’re going to have what is it? Narcan. Schools have all these things and nurses. Those are all tools. They’re tools to help save someone’s life. Okay. So why is an AED not part of those tools?
Avive: There’s an old adage that asks, how do you eat an elephant? and answers with one bite at a time. St. Francis of Assisi, put it more poetically by stating, start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly, you are doing the impossible.
School Administrator: On this campus, we actually have several AEDs. We actually have one on each campus. We’re required to have one on each campus with the gym.
Avive: Inside the gym of my alma mater in Jackson, Tennessee, I’m witnessing Rhonda Harrill’s final bite of the elephant firsthand. Over 300 miles away from where Rhonda’s story started, she’s left her mark on Southside High School along with every other public school in the state of Tennessee that now has automated external defibrillators or AEDs at the ready. And we have Tanner Lee Jamison and Rhonda Harrill to thank for this.
School Administrator: The most important thing we learn in CPR is just to get the AED there. Once the AED comes, we turn it on and the AED tells you step-by-step what to do. So even I can figure out what to do.
Rhonda Harrill: I’m Rhonda Harrell. Actually, I have two sons. Cameron is my oldest. Tanner was my youngest. He was thirteen, it was a normal day, he had never been sick, and he collapsed playing basketball. And that’s where my journey began.
Rhonda Harrill: He was in his sixth grade year, but he always played on the varsity team. And he was a point guard. And Tanner does not like to come out of any sport. He could be throwing up and he’d play. The coach said he saw his run down court with the ball and halfway back, Tanner approached the coach and said, I don’t feel well. And the coach said, what do you mean you don’t feel well? He asked, you think you want to throw up? Tanner said, I don’t know. He said, well, just go sit down for a second. And as he turned, Tanner collapsed.
Avive: At first, the coach thought Tanner was joking around, but soon realized that this was no laughing matter.
Rhonda Harrill: Tanner was always a big prankster with people. At first, you know, the coach said, Tanner, come on get up and quit playing around. And then after a few seconds he realized that he was not breathing. The coach started CPR. His wife was there and he got all the kids out of school. And another kid got his cell phone to dial 911.
Avive: The most tragic thing about Tanner’s story is that this didn’t have to happen because there was actually a life-saving AED on the school premises that evidently few were aware of.
Rhonda Harrill: At first, originally, at the hospital, they pronounced him. I thought maybe he had an aneurysm because it’s so sudden. They called us that morning and said it wasn’t an aneurysm and that they were going to open him up. After about six months, we got the results back and I read it multiple times, multiple times. Anything I didn’t know or didn’t understand, I looked it up. And I started talking to different doctors and different people. That’s when I realized an AED could have saved him. So I went back to the school, cause you know, they were all, I mean, the teachers at the school I’ve known for years. I said is there an AED here. And they had just gotten a new principal that year. And she said, yes, it’s right back here the nurses mail station. And I just kind of looked at her, I was like, okay. It was locked up in the school office behind the nurses mailbox, which was on the second floor. And the gym was on the bottom floor. The coach, who also taught there, did not know they had an AED. I volunteered at that school and had worked in the office and I had never seen you AED.
Avive: Learning about the AED locked away at Tanner school became the spark that lit the fire for Ronda’s advocacy. She wanted to know if other schools in the area also had AEDs onsite.
Rhonda Harrill: There was a school where I went to a basketball game. Well, it’s just natural for me now. It doesn’t matter where I go, I look for AEDs. I walk into this school gym and I don’t see an AED nowhere. I’ll walk up to, most of the time it’s the teachers who are taking the money to get into school games, and I said, Hey, do you have an AED? And she said we don’t have one. You don’t have one? She was like, yeah, we don’t have one. I said, okay. So the next morning I called the principal of the school she’s like, well, you’ll have to take it up with the school board because they control the funding. I talked to the school board. They basically didn’t want to have to deal with it. So I called the mayor. His name was Mayor Lowe. I called him personally. I left a message. He called me back. And within two days he had an AED in every school.
Avive: This was an impressive first win for Rhonda. But she realized that by doing this on her own, there was no guarantee that schools would actually follow through with their promise. She knew she needed some help.
Rhonda Harrill: Anytime you work with the schools, they are always saying it’s the budget, that they don’t have enough budget. You know, kids are there all the time. You know, my kids were at school more than they were at home. And I was like, if I don’t go through the legislation, if I just go to schools individually, they say, yeah, we’ll get AEDS. They may not do it. I need some type of grounds to make them have to do it. The school system failed Tanner. And them failing him caused his death. You lose your child, and your child doing something that they love playing their sport. And they pass away. You know, you feel like as a parent, you gotta leave a legacy. You have to leave it out there. Let people know who they were, you know? Cause he was a person and he was a child. He was my child. I would fight for him if he was alive. Or now that he’s past I would fight for him the same way I fight for legislation. Of course I wanted to mandate AEDs right off the bat. But you know, you take your small wins. You take those small wins to build big wins.
Avive: And Rhonda’s list of small wins is head spinning. It really is remarkable that one person got lawmakers to act time, after time, after time.
Rhonda Harrill: The first step was that, if a school had an AED, it had to be accessible. It had to be registered through a doctor and it had to be checked every day. Then the next year, that’s when we did the required drills. If a child goes down in cardiac arrest or an adult or whoever, that code comes across the intercom and the teachers know what it means. My next step, I think I got AED required for just high school. Now in one of my bills, all coaches have to take further training to recognize cardiac arrest. And they also have to send cardiac arrest educational papers home with every child that wants to play.
Avive: But it wasn’t necessarily an easy road for Rhonda. She not only had to learn how to think like a politician, but she had to prove herself constantly.
Rhonda Harrill: I had sent the budget to the state and they said that they didn’t have the budget to do all schools. So they did the legislation just for high schools. But in the process of this, I hate politics but you learn quickly that you better listen and learn. So by me listening to things that they were saying, it benefited me because I could call them out on it. And you know, they were like, well, we don’t have the funding this year for it. And you know, and this was our last governor And I said, you want me to tell parents that when a kid dies tomorrow you want me to say Hey, well we got next year. Cause that’s what you’re telling me. And I said, but yet you just signed a bill for Narcan to be in schools, which have no policy for drugs on campus. You have parents who really don’t know and don’t understand about cardiac arrest in the young. I learned the hard way. So, you know, they don’t want to have to give up the money. They’d rather have a new gym floor because they just don’t know. I had to prove myself to legislators. Hey, what I’m doing is working. Just after my bill passed, two weeks later a kid collapsed at a school and they did a cardiac arrest drill that saves the kid. So legislators realized really quickly, Okay, what she is doing, it’s working, it’s saving kids, it’s saving people’s lives. And I had to prove that pretty much all the time.
Avive: And in April of 2019, Rhonda Harrill’s hard work paid off in the Tennessee legislature. A bill sponsored by state representative Bob Ramsey was made law, mandating that at least one AED be available in each of the 1800 public schools across the state. Representative Ramsey read a letter from Rhonda to those assembled in the statehouse that read in part, “Grief is like war. I either win or I die trying. This AED war is something I won’t lose. It’s the last thing I can do for my son Tanner. And I will get it done.” Rhonda’s letter was met with a standing ovation.
Rhonda Harrill: But you have to go through so many different boards. There’s so many boards you’ve got to go through and speak and it’s got to keep moving up. And every time, I would always go and tell my story. I still say God put Bob Ramsey in my life because he grounded me probably more than anybody. But there was no one person, not any time that I went up for a bill, that denied a bill for me. The legislators all voted a hundred percent.
Avive: Rhonda will occasionally receive calls from people in other states who are looking to get similar legislation passed. These people will often ask her about the legal team she undoubtedly had in order to achieve this kind of success.
Rhonda Harrill: I get calls from other people. Somebody from Florida called me, and they were trying to get bills passed. And they asked, how did you do it? Did you hire an attorney? Did you do that? No. You know, I just, I did it myself. It’s something that, for me, I had to do it because in the long run it saved me also. I think that if I had not jumped into it and figured out what happened to Tanner, I think I would have sunk so far down in depression. There would’ve been no way for me to come back from it. I couldn’t save Tanner that day, but in the long run, I did because now the bills are named after him.