How One Mother is Working to Change Medical Military Protocol
Laurie Finlayson’s son David died of Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) while serving with the US Marine Corps. Laurie was shocked to learn that an Electrocardiogram (EKG) is not part of the routine medical examination for military recruits. She formed Lion Heart Heroes, a nonprofit foundation promoting better cardiac screening of military recruits. The foundation raises awareness and funds to reduce the risk of SCA and to donate AEDs (Automatic External Defibrillators) to military bases.
Avive had the privilege of speaking with Laurie about her son, and how she’s turned her tragic loss into advocacy for change so that other families aren’t forced to live through the trauma she experienced first-hand. During our interview, we quickly learned where David got his fighting spirit!
Below is Laurie’s story in her own words.
Laurie Finlayson: David was a kid with so much energy, so much personality. From the moment he was born he never stopped running. Looking back at how frequently he pushed his limits, I almost feel victorious that he lived as long as he did. He was fascinated by the military from an early age; GI Joes, old war movies, TV series, anything he could get his hands on. He loved it all, and he learned it all. The first book he read all by himself was about the sinking of the Bismarck in World War Two.
In High School, David decided he wanted to be a Navy Seal. That decision gave him a real drive; a sense of self-discipline. He was smart but unbothered by the academic side of school. He went in for sports like cross country and track and joined the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) unit. Every day, at five in the morning, I would drive him to another school for his JROTC. In his Marine Corps unit, David won Best Armed Drill Cadet and his team won the Pacific Northwest Drill and Rifle Conference Championship in 2005. David was thriving. After graduation, David concluded that college wasn’t the place for him and instead went to work at a machine shop. He would come home and show us pictures of the warnings on the machines, ‘don’t stick your head in there’, ‘don’t get your fingers cut off’, that kind of thing. He was really funny, really witty.
Soon after, David chose to start college and study criminal justice. He studied at college in the day and worked a security job at night. Working with a lot of ex-military guys in the security team meant he was always hearing their stories. David had always wanted to go into the military, and he longed to tell stories of his own.
He joined the military when he was 23. He passed his medical with flying colors, got through boot camp and became a Marine. After graduating from the School of Infantry, he was assigned to MCBH-Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii as an Assaultman. His first and only deployment was to Japan, Thailand and Korea, then he came home for what would be his last visit in June 2013. We unknowingly said our last goodbyes to him when he went back to Hawaii after Leave.
We heard from his girlfriend before any of us knew what had happened. She had learned that someone had died on a training run, and she was wondering if we’d heard from David. I said that it wouldn’t be David, because surely we’d be the first to know? They always notify the family first, right? But that day when David’s dad got home, two Marines were waiting outside the house. I don’t know the right word for how it felt. We couldn’t get our heads around what could have happened. Everything seemed surreal, and I felt like I was a character in a book. We learned that David had been near the end of a five-mile training run with the whole battalion and that he had collapsed and his heart stopped. This didn’t make any sense–David had sailed through his medical, the only thing we kept thinking of was that he’d had swollen ankles after boot camp. But so did everyone else. He’d had a full workup at the doctor afterward and had been fine.
It took some time for us to get answers about what had happened. The military investigates any unexpected death, and the investigation report answered some questions… but raised others. The report was a 700-page document with all of David’s health records, autopsy results, and testimonies, including pages of details about the run. The first Report of Casualty said that his death was the “result of sudden cardiac arrest.” The final death certificate said he died of “probable cardiac arrhythmia” and listed the manner of death as “natural causes,” as if dropping dead at age 25 is natural. Ultimately, we don’t know what caused it. At an autopsy they can look for physical, structural abnormalities of the heart and they’d said his heart was enlarged but not abnormal. So, I remember saying that it must have been an electrical problem with his heart, and I remember asking to see his EKG.
That was the moment we found out they don’t do EKGs as part of the pre-military medical. It was such a shock. They have two or three days of medical testing. With all the physical stresses put on these guys, how could they not do an EKG to check their hearts?
Several months later, another Gold Star Mom, Myra Rintamaki, told me about the Nick of Time Foundation, which screens high school students for cardiac problems. That’s when the seed was planted; we wanted to do something for the Marines, and we thought that sort of screening could work for the military. We decided to form a nonprofit to provide cardiac screening and to advocate for changes at the Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS). Our foundation was born on October 16, 2014, just under a year after we lost David.
Why Lion Heart Heroes?
David had a huge black tattoo of a lion on his shoulder. It’s the Lion Rampant of Scotland, from the Scottish flag, and the lion is a symbol of bravery and courage. He got the tattoo to memorialize the time he spent working in security and riding motorcycles with his friends. It was just a really good segment of his life. Two days after David died we flew to Hawaii for the Marine Corps Ball – John felt strongly that we needed to be there. The Marine Command met us at the airport, and the next morning David’s Marine brothers came and had breakfast with us at our hotel. One Marine showed us his new tattoo: a Rampant Lion with a heart. Since then, many of David’s friends and family members have gotten tattoos to match, to honor his memory and to stand in solidarity. David has a whole pride of lions!
When we were planning our foundation, we needed something to symbolize courage and hope, something that represented David himself. The rampant lion was perfect. Our lion has a heart. Lion Heart Heroes.
Our original aim was to make sure young people joining the military got an EKG, a basic cardiac workup as part of their medical. The difficulty wasn’t going to be in gaining support, but in bypassing the bureaucracy surrounding changes to regulation. We wanted to do a sample screening here in Washington with a small reserve unit of about 300 marines. We had everything ready; volunteers, cardiologists, a date and venue and all the equipment… and at the last minute, the command explained that the lawyers had shut us down, that we were violating a rule about non-military medical personnel working on base. That was incredibly disappointing.
Then the Chief Medical Officer of the Navy contacted us, and we talked about screening. It was wonderful that he understood the issue and saw the value of what we were trying to do. He told us that there was a group doing research on SCA in military personnel, and that he was going to support them getting funded. They were hoping to do a study on 35,000 recruits, over two or three years… but it was terminated, this time by the Institutional Review Board. A research article that was supposed to come of it has yet to be published.
It’s a hard and slow process making these kinds of changes in the military, so we adjusted our focus, and we’ve been using our funds to donate AEDs to military bases. We want everyone to be familiar with AEDs because they can restart a heart that has gone into cardiac arrest. They’re so easy to use and so portable and durable. Anyone can save a life. We did a heart screening with Nick of Time at the school where David did JROTC and found several students who needed follow up. We donated an AED to them too. Theirs is in a backpack so they can take it to drill meets.
Even making donations meets with so much red tape in the military. The approval for our first donated AED took six months, and we had to get permission from the Rear Admiral of the West Coast! It’s all worth it if it means one life saved.
All the time we’ve been running the foundation, despite the hurdles, we’ve been making connections with people. Some are doing research on SCA, others are in charge of medical requirements, some are in positions of power. So many great people. People are out there writing research papers on why cardiovascular screening is important for basketball players, for athletes, for youth. SCA is the number one cause of non-traumatic death in the military, and that’s the group we focus on. There’s a lot of evidence that many of those deaths could be prevented by cardiac screening with current EKG technology. This issue is reaching a tipping point, where more and more people are aware, like the way we understand concussions and traumatic brain injury now. It all takes time, but we’ll get there.
Lion Heart Heroes is dedicated to raising awareness of Sudden Cardiac Arrest and the need for better screening for military recruits. They are pushing for cardiovascular screening using EKGs at MEPS. We provide AEDs, encourage training in CPR, and support cardiac screening programs for youth.
To learn more about the Lion Heart Heroes Foundation visit: https://www.lionheartheroes.org. You can also follow them on Facebook!