The Last Whistle: New Fort Worth Based Film Tackles Sudden Cardiac Arrest
On a winning streak, a storied high school football coach pushes his players by running extra. Suddenly, one of the players collapses during the intense practice.
While this is the plot of a new movie, it’s based on fact. Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) is the leading cause of death in young athletes. The Fort Worth based movie, The Last Whistle, takes a look at what happens when no one knows what to do after a high school football star collapses and dies at practice from sudden cardiac arrest.
“Every school does a fire drill, but the last time a student died in a school fire was 1950. On the other hand, a young competitive athlete dies suddenly every three days. This is something we need to make people aware of and I hope The Last Whistle will do that,” Thieroff said.
Thieroff says that 20% of our population goes to school each day, and parents assume they’re healthy and safe, but there is always the chance for sudden cardiac arrest, which is why Project ADAM is so important.
The reality is that parents and staff often don’t realize their school keeps an AED on site for situations like the one portrayed in The Last Whistle, or with the Cook Children’s programs namesake, Adam Lemel. In 1999, Adam, who was 17 years old at the time, collapsed during a basketball game and died from sudden cardiac arrest. Like in The Last Whistle, knowing where there is an AED on site and how to use it could have saved his life.
There are now 20 Project ADAM programs in 16 states, and 150 lives have been saved to date nationwide. These 150 lives saved are because students and staff were properly trained on how to react to sudden cardiac arrest, Thieroff says.
Currently in the Texas Project ADAM program there are 414 Heart Safe Schools and 14 Heart Safe School districts. In 2018 eight lives were saved in Project ADAM Texas schools. It is the hope that through movies like The Last Whistle and stories like Adam’s that people will be encouraged to learn what to do in the case a sudden cardiac arrest occurs.
Our conversation with the writer and director of The Last Whistle, Robert Smat
Robert Smat is a Louisana born, Texas-raised director of more than 50 short films, commercials and music videos. He played football for All Saints Episcopal School, winning a state championship in 2012. Smat originally planned on going to school for quantum physics, but after prayer and talking with his parents and high school advisors, he made the decision to go to film school. After applying to 10 schools, none of which were in Texas, he chose to attend the University of Southern California Film School. As fate would have it, he found himself back in Texas to film his first feature film, The Last Whistle.
“While it isn’t as common as car accidents, it still happens everywhere,” Smat said.
For Smat writing is about being authentic and getting a message out to his audience, and this movie allows him to spread the message about Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA). The Last Whistle provides a subtle message on the importance of knowing what to do in the case of SCA and acting quickly, instead of waiting for paramedics. For Smat, the ultimate goal of this movie is to save a life, with the hope that one parent will see it and decide to take their child to the doctor to get tested.
Q: Why was it important to you to have a message in your story?
A: There are too many movies that either have no message or their message is actually a little too heavy handed. I think we've really lost sight of movies with a subtle message. I guess it's debatable for people who see the movie whether they think the message is subtle. But I just think movies and art are such an important way to have an impact on society. It's not creating some sort of positive change as at the same time that it's entertaining people. Because I think the entertainment is the first priority.
Then why are you doing it? There are people who do it just for entertainment, but for me I sort of need that reason. And if I can add one more ounce of good in the world that's a pretty good reason.
Q: How did sudden cardiac arrest become that reason, or that message, for you and this movie?
A: I was looking for something in the film that could have that message in it. It was the story. The plot driver I went with for a lot of reasons. Honestly, I said, 'This is a serious issue. I'm going to look into it a little more.' I found out how prevalent it was. It happened so many times when I was playing football in surrounding areas, it had to happen everywhere. I think that's been one of the major shocks of this whole thing. While it's not as common as car wrecks or something like that, it truly happens everywhere. It affects everybody and in every sport. When I found that out, I was like, "Ok, this is a story that hasn't been told yet.' And, if there's just one thing that I'd like to do is tell stories that haven't been told yet.
Q: What do you hope people take from this movie when they see it?
A: I'm hoping that people will see a movie that's different and I hope they will enjoy it and want more. When it comes to football films, films with a message, films that are uplifting, I think they are all done in very similar ways. I don't think there's a lot of artistic flair when it comes to movies like this. There's definitely a couple, but not many. I'm hoping that the viewers that we're trying to get to see this film, will see some of that independent spirit, enjoy it and they will come back for more.
But in terms of cardiomyopathy and sudden cardiac arrest, I know what my goal is now because I've started to see it happen. What my goal was early on was to make this the plot driver for the film, but I didn't want people who were impacted by it to think we were exploting them. That was a crucial challenge early on because there's so many ways that could happen. But now, seeing how people don't feel that way and they are obviously excited by this movie and how we handled things, my goal would be if we could save one life. If one person out there would say, 'Oh I saw the movie and I had my son and daughter tested.' Just to raise awareness in that way, would be huge.
Q: One of the things we hope this movie makes people think about is having AEDs at school and prompts people to think about, 'What are we missing or what are we not doing right to protect our kids?'
A: Boy, I just got the Q&A for tonight after the premiere screening. The American Heart Association is collaborating with us on this premiere and one of the questions was, 'Rob, in the movie all the players are kind of standing around and they don't know what to do. Why did you write it that way? How did you know how to perfectly capture that moment? I don't know what my answer will be tonight, but my immediate answer is, "Oh, because that's what I would do in that situation. I don't know what to do. I wouldn't know. So my own ignorance has made this film realistic. If they pull out the AED, things would have been different. But through my own ignorance when I began writing this movie that's what occurs.
I think I was honestly part of that group that just didn't know. Sudden Cardiac Arrest is such a hidden killer that after it happens ... with a stroke, we all try to make people aware of the signs of stroke. But when it comes to something like SCA, it's just rare enough that it doesn't have that widespread knowledge. So that's where you could get a number of people who just don't know what to do.
At a certain point, you have a number of people who all think, 'oh someone else knows what to do here.' Especially, if you don't have a trainer or a sports specialist nearby or someone who is not trained to use the AED, then you can really get a bunch of people who just say, 'Well, let's just let the paramedics handle it and let's not mess it up.' And that's just not the right thing to do.
Pre-screening is an essential component of prevention. In Texas, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) requires a Pre-participation Physical Evaluation prior to student involvement in sports for grades (7-12). The physical may help determine whether a student athlete is physically capable of certain exercise, and may determine the need for further evaluation should warning signs be present.
However, athletes are not the only ones at risk, and not all children are athletes, many are active and some may have underlying heart conditions.
Sign and symptoms
Pediatric heart disease has warning signs and symptoms that can go unnoticed. It is important to recognize the following:
- Fainting or near-fainting during or after exercise, emotion or surprise
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Extreme fatigue associated with exercise
- Extreme shortness of breath associated with exercise
- Discomfort, pain or pressure in chest during or after exercise
- Skipping or racing heartbeats
- High blood pressure
- Congenital heart abnormality
- Family history of sudden death prior to age 50 or known heart abnormalities
Not all episodes of sudden cardiac arrest are preventable because many of the kids do not have symptoms until they have the episode. For this reason, secondary prevention strategies are important.