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Teen’s death leads to push for defibrillators in schools

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By Julie Muhlstein, Herald Columnist
  • Nick Varrenti

    Nick Varrenti

Nick Varrenti loved football. He wore No. 58.
To sport his team spirit, Nick wore tall blue football socks every day to school. In 2004, over Labor Day weekend, the 16-year-old played his last game. He breathed his last breath.
Nicholas Dwain Varrenti died on Sept. 6, 2004, of sudden cardiac arrest. A former student at Heatherwood Middle School and Jackson High School in Mill Creek, he had moved to Mars, Penn., where he spent his childhood. He was a high school junior when he died.
A Pittsburgh Steelers fan, a prankster, the youngest of four children, Nick aspired to play college football — “if he had the grades,” his mother Darla Varrenti said Tuesday.
“Football was his life,” said Varrenti, who lives in Seattle. “He’d say the only reason he went to school was so he could play sports.”
Nick didn’t get to live his dream, but in her grief his mother works to spare others the loss her family suffered.
Varrenti is executive director of the Nick of Time Foundation, a nonprofit organization she founded several years ago with her sister and Nick’s aunt, Suzanne Apodaca, of Mill Creek.
The foundation aims to make certain that schools have automated external defibrillators and the training to use them. It also offers cardiovascular screening programs to schools, thanks to a collaboration with UW Medicine and support from companies making electrocardiogram equipment.
“We wanted to do something,” Varrenti said. “It happens more frequently than we realized.”
According to the American Heart Association, about 325,000 Americans die annually of sudden cardiac arrest before reaching a hospital or in hospital emergency departments.
In its research, the Nick of Time Foundation found federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics showing that between 7,000 and 14,000 young people die each year from sudden cardiac arrest.
Varrenti said that more than a dozen Puget Sound area young people have died of sudden cardiac arrest since 2002. In Snohomish County, they include 5-year-old Julia Frisk, who died in 2005 after collapsing at a Lake Stevens area day care.
Varrenti is close to the family of Quinn Driscoll, a Vancouver, Wash., boy who died in 2009 after running during gym class. The Quinn Driscoll Foundation also works to bring screenings and defibrillators to schools.
Serving as head of the Nick of Time Foundation’s medical board is Dr. Jonathan Drezner, an associate professor in the UW’s Department of Family Medicine who has done extensive research on using automated defibrillators. Drezner is both the team doctor for the UW’s Department of Intercollegiate Athletics and one of four team doctors for the Seattle Seahawks.
Apodaca, Nick Varrenti’s aunt, said Monday that the foundation is working to ensure all Seattle schools are equipped with defibrillators as part of a Heart of Seattle Schools Project. In the coming year, Darla Varrenti said, they hope to bring the screening program to Heatherwood and Jackson High School.
“We think every child’s heart should be screened,” Varrenti said.
Supported by donations and fundraising, the foundation offers free screenings that go beyond typical sports physicals. They include a resting electrocardiogram. Medical residents from the UW use the data as a teaching tool, Varrenti said.
Cost and insurance companies’ reluctance to cover the tests are barriers for most families, she said.
Varrenti said a growing number of schools and public places now have defibrillators, which have simple to use instructions. Since Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a so-called Good Samaritan Law in 2005, there are fewer liability concerns for lay people offering emergency medical help, she said.
She also credits Medtronic, a medical technology company with offices in Redmond, with helping start the foundation.
Varrenti remembers happy times in Mill Creek, when she and her sister’s family were neighbors. Young Nick and his siblings played often with their three cousins. “They’d run back and forth between our houses in their PJs,” she said.
“I don’t ever want another family to go through what we’ve gone through,” Varrenti said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;
More on the Nick of Time Foundation
The nonprofit Nick of Time Foundation was founded by the family of Nicholas Dwain Varrenti.
A former student at Heatherwood Middle School and Jackson High School in Mill Creek, Nick died in 2004 of sudden cardiac arrest. The foundation raises awareness of automated external defibrillator use and provides cardiovascular screenings to young people.
For more information, go to

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