No matter the sport, 14-year-old Burke Cobb loved to compete.

The oldest of three boys, Burke played football, basketball, lacrosse and was a swim team member. With all that energy and activity, his mom, Marla Cobb, considered him perfectly healthy.

Until July 19, 2012.

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BurkeBurke started the day working out with the high school football team in Prairieville, Louisiana. Three days before, the incoming freshman had attended prestigious Manning Passing Academy football training camp in Thibodaux, Louisiana.

After a routine summer workout with his new teammates, Burke met several friends at the high school gym for a pick-up basketball game.

Only a few minutes in, Burke told one of his teammates that he felt dizzy.  He attempted to walk off of the court but fell to his knees and collapsed. Burke never made it to the sideline.

A few players thought Burke was joking. They tried sitting him up. When they saw his face, they immediately knew something was very wrong. Burke was turning blue and gasping for air. They yelled for help.

Someone called 9-1-1. The fire department came a few minutes later and initiated CPR.

Burke was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where a pediatric cardiologist determined the teen had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The left ventricle of his heart was enlarged, disrupting the heart’s electrical system; it caused him to go into sudden cardiac arrest. Burke did not survive.

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It’s not clear whether Burke was born with the condition or developed it during puberty. He never had any symptoms that might have indicated something was wrong.

“Doctors told us that often the event of sudden cardiac arrest is the first symptom,” Marla said.

Sudden cardiac arrest is the abrupt loss of heart function. It occurs in people who may or may not have been diagnosed with heart disease. While often confused with a heart attack, the conditions are actually quite different. SCA is akin to a problem with the heart’s electrical functions, whereas a heart attack is more of a plumbing problem – that is, the blood supply to vital tissues is blocked.

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Cobb boysAs the Cobbs grieved, they tried to understand what could have helped Burke survive. They zeroed in on the importance of widespread CPR and AED (automated external defibrillator) training.

The family established the Living4Burke Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises awareness about sudden cardiac arrest and the importance of CPR.

“I meet so many people who say, `I have an AED at work or at the gym, but I wouldn’t know what to do with it,’” Marla said. “If we train our high school students in CPR and AED use it will equip them with the knowledge they need to save a life during a cardiac event. They will feel empowered to act in an emergency. There is no doubt that lives will be saved through this training.”

An estimated 70 percent of Americans feel helpless to act during a cardiac emergency because they do not know how to administer CPR or their training has significantly lapsed. Effective bystander CPR provided immediately after sudden cardiac arrest can double or triple a victim’s chance of survival, but only 32 percent of cardiac arrest victims get CPR from a bystander.

In May, Burke’s father, Jim Cobb, spoke to a Louisiana Senate education committee about the importance of CPR training as part of the American Heart Association’s effort to urge states to make CPR and AED training part of high school graduation requirements. The bill was signed into law in June, and was renamed the Burke Cobb Act.

Cobbs and legislator

Jim Cobb (far right), with his sister, Kristen Cobb Simpson, Louisiana State Rep. Tom Willmott and Stasha Rhodes (far left) of the AHA

The American Heart Association helped pioneer CPR over 50 years ago, and continues to refine this lifesaving technique. The organization trains more than 15 million people each year in 60-plus countries. Even without formal training, anyone can be a lifesaver by remembering the steps to “Hands-Only CPR” – call 9-1-1, then push hard and fast in the center of the chest, preferably to the beat of the classic disco song, “Stayin’ Alive” until help arrives.

With increased awareness about the importance of CPR and widespread training, the Cobbs hope more bystanders are equipped with the knowledge and confidence to take action during a cardiac emergency.

“The Burke Cobb Act will save lives,” Marla said. “Everyone deserves an opportunity for resuscitation and the steps for saving a life include recognizing a cardiac arrest, calling 9-1-1, starting CPR and finding the AED and using it. The first few minutes are critical and something must be done before EMS arrives. Instead of just being a co-worker, classmate, friend or bystander to those around us, we could be potential lifesavers to them. That is a priceless gift to give someone.”

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Photos courtesy of Jim and Marla Cobb

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Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

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Airman who nearly died on basketball court helps others learn skills that saved his life