Four years ago Michelle Spencer lost her son, Andrew Ortega, a gifted student and athlete. The Rutherford, N.J., teenager died in his sleep, a victim of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). Andrew was just 13.
The family found out later that Andrew had lived with an undiagnosed heart condition (an enlarged heart) that put him at risk for SCA. Had anyone thought to screen him for cardiac abnormalities, it’s likely that the signs of this condition would have been discovered, Spencer said.
Andrew’s parents, Jose Ortega and Michelle Spencer, started the Andrew Ortega Foundation in his memory. The organization is dedicated to making people aware of SCA, ways to prevent it, and ways to respond to it.
Its work includes equipping schools and community organizations with automated external defibrillators (AEDs) — devices that can walk a parent, coach, teacher, or even another student through the steps for a rescue. Once attached to the victim, an AED, such as the Powerheart® AED G3 Plus, can automatically diagnose SCA and, if it is appropriate, administer shock intended to restore the victim’s heartbeat.
In November, the foundation donated six Powerheart G3 AEDs to the Rutherford Board of Education.
“We live in Rutherford, my son attended the Rutherford school system, we host a 5K there, we do screenings there, and the AED donation is a way we give back to the community that supports us,” said Spencer.
Earlier this year, Janet’s Law went into effect in New Jersey, requiring all public and private schools (kindergarten through 12th grade) to have an AED on site and accessible, with clear signage.
“With the new law, Rutherford found they needed to update their AEDs,” Spencer said. “We were able to provide six of the 11 they needed.”
The Andrew Ortega Foundation has also been instrumental in advocating for legislation that would require cardiac screenings (including EKGs) for children who play organized sports. The Foundation has provided screenings at a local hospital for 160 Rutherford-area students.
Spencer said that while the hospital does not reveal information about test results, three families contacted her this year to say that, as a result of the foundation’s screening, they’d discovered that their child had indications of a heart condition. Another family had their daughter screened after a conversation with Spencer, and that child is now receiving treatment for a cardiac problem.
“We are getting the message out, and it is making a difference for people’s lives,” Spencer said.