A heartbeat away
Eight-year-old Griffin Martin’s heart stopped beating during recess one day. His school didn’t have a defibrillator. Now his parents are on a mission to make sure no other family suffers a similar tragedy.
By Ashley Burke
The Martins called it “cider o’clock.”
Every night at precisely 8 p.m., eight-year-old Griffin would wait for a mug of warm apple cider, complete with a cinnamon stick.
Sometimes he'd change it up: on Tuesdays, it had to be tea; on Fridays, hot chocolate.
It was the ritual, not the drink, that was important.
Griffin liked his drink heated up in the microwave for exactly one minute and 30 seconds, then poured into his favourite mug, the one with a knight on it.
Then he’d settle into his spot on the right side of the couch, place his mug on the little side table and start sketching tiny, intricate drawings of medieval characters, skulls and sword fights.
His 12-year-old sister Rowan was always nearby, watching TV or finishing her homework.
When it was time for bed, Damien Martin would carry his son upstairs for storytime. Before Griffin shut his eyes, he’d make his dad tell him everything about his day.
Andrea Martin would open the bedroom door a crack and blow her son a kiss, and Griffin would pretend to catch it. Then she’d wrap her arms around herself to make a hugging gesture and say good night.
That, too, was part of the ritual.
Then one day in late February 2017, Griffin’s heart stopped while he was at school, and Damien and Andrea’s world changed forever.
“That routine was part of the daily rhythm of our lives, and without it we felt untethered,” Damien said.
"The best way I can describe it is an amputation of the soul,” Andrea added. “I'm not the same person. I never will be the same person as I was before. You have to completely rebuild your identity.”
Seven months later, mystery still surrounds Griffin’s death. He was after all a normal, active boy with no known health issues. The autopsy offered no clues, and the family is still waiting for results of genetic testing that could reveal a pre-existing heart condition.
His parents are haunted by “what ifs.” Among those torturous questions the most persistent has been: What if a defibrillator could have saved their son’s life?
The Martins are sharing their story publicly for the first time to spare other families from going through the same pain, and hope it will serve as a wakeup call to school boards across the country to be better prepared for medical emergencies like the one that took their son’s life.
“We want people to know it can happen,” Damien said. ”And if it does, you want to have everything available to give them a fighting chance.”
On Feb. 24, Andrea Martin was working from home when the phone rang.
It was someone from Orleans Wood Elementary School calling with bad news about Griffin.
“Griffin stopped breathing...come right away.”
Andrea raced to the school, around the corner from their home. A police officer ushered her into a patrol car and they rushed to Montfort Hospital just in time to see paramedics wheel Griffin through the doors of the emergency entrance.
"I saw him being wheeled in and yelled to him, ‘Griffin come back, come back!’”
The medical team quickly went to work.
“There were 10 doctors and nurses who tried valiantly to save his life,” Andrea said. “The police were lined up outside his room to wait and see what happened.”
By that time Damien had joined his wife at the hospital.
“It seemed like watching something from the outside,” he recalled. “It was just as you see in a hospital drama, but we were in it.”
The doctors tried to revive Griffin for 90 minutes, but the boy never regained a heartbeat. Eventually Damien and Andrea told them to stop.
"It's brutal,” Damien said. “You know objectively that there's nothing more that can be done, but it's still, making that decision to stop was difficult. It was the hardest thing ever imagined.”
The shattered couple left the hospital in stunned silence.
The details of what had happened at school emerged over the following days.
That morning, Griffin’s class had gone skating at the nearby Bob MacQuarrie Recreation Complex, then returned to school.
An hour later, during recess, Griffin and his friends were playing outside on a pile of snow. Suddenly Griffin sat down and toppled over.
His friends thought Griffin was joking around and pretending to be asleep. But they quickly realized something was seriously wrong. A teacher discovered Griffin wasn’t breathing and didn’t have a pulse. He’d gone into cardiac arrest.
Staff members started CPR. Ottawa paramedics received the 911 call at 11:47 a.m., and their logs show they arrived at the school within seven minutes. Firefighters arrived around the same time.
The decision was made to rush the boy to the nearby Montfort instead of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, but it was already too late for doctors to save him.
It’s not known whether an automated external defibrillator, or AED, would have saved Griffin’s life.
What is known is that Orleans Wood Elementary School didn’t have one on hand that day.
The devices, a common sight at hockey rinks and other public buildings across Canada, deliver an electric shock to help a patient’s heart return to its normal rhythm. They’re easy to use, and can save lives when seconds count.
“For every minute where you don’t have defibrillation your chances of survival decrease by 10 per cent,” said Darryl Wilton, president of the Professional Paramedic Association of Ottawa.
Had Griffin been somewhere else when he went into cardiac arrest, his life may have been saved by an AED. That tragic fact is not lost on his father.
“If what happened to Griffin had happened an hour earlier when he was at the arena, there would have been an AED,” Damien said. “Ottawa Catholic elementary schools have AEDs, so if he had of gone to that school would there have been a different outcome? He might still be here.”
After Griffin’s death, Damien asked the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) how many of its schools had defibrillators. The board didn’t have an answer.
“It just shows that it doesn’t seem to be high on their radar,” Damien said.
Six weeks later Damien got his answer: Seventy-eight of the board’s 119 elementary schools had no AED on site.
The revelation surprised the paramedic association, too.
“We were quite alarmed,” Wilton said. “We actually operated with the assumption there was more out there in schools than we thought.”
Does your child's school have an AED? Click here to find out.
It’s not mandatory for boards in Ontario to equip their schools with defibrillators. Manitoba is the only province that requires all public places, including schools, to have AEDs on hand.
According to Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, the province has spent $10 million to buy defibrillators for public facilities, including schools.
“School boards are able to provide AEDs for schools, and many of them do have that in place,” Hunter told CBC.
Unlike the OCDSB, Ottawa’s Catholic board has equipped every one of its schools with AEDs. That includes St. Matthew Catholic High School, 500 metres from Orleans Wood.
So why are there so few at OCDSB elementary schools?
Mike Carson, the board’s chief financial officer and superintendent of facilities, said the barrier isn’t money, it’s maintenance.
In addition to the provincial funding, the board received a grant five years ago from a national foundation to place defibrillators in some of its schools. It chose to put them in all of its high schools, as well as elementary schools where gyms were commonly used by adult sports clubs after hours.
None has ever been used in a medical emergency.
Carson estimates it would cost roughly $200,000 to put portable defibrillators in all the board’s 143 schools. That’s about $1,400 per device.
“It’s a significant amount, but it’s certainly not the barrier,” Carson said.
The real barrier, Carson said, came when the board realized it was more complicated than simply mounting the machines on a wall.
“We realized there were some issues for us in terms of training and upkeep,” Carson said.
“Once you’ve installed it, [we have to make] sure it’s properly charged, that it’s tested every month. The only thing worse than not having one is having [a defibrillator] that people think they can rely on, and having it not work.”
Carson said there were also concerns among teachers and other staff members who might be required to operate the AEDs.
“Our staff certainly had reservations about their ability to use it.”
Damien Martin was surprised to learn that, of all things, was the sticking point.
“I don’t think that was ever a reasonable barrier,” he said. “If you don’t put an AED in a school and someone suffers cardiac arrest, that person is almost guaranteed to die. I think the choice is pretty clear.”
Carson said the board is now working on a plan to install defibrillators in all of its schools because the technology has improved and there are new resources that make it “more practical for us to move ahead now.”
One option is to register school defibrillators with the city so the responsibility of ensuring the units are charged and maintained falls to Ottawa paramedics. It could also shift any liability to the city in the event that something goes wrong.
The board could approve the plan later this month, Carson said.
But the Martins are unwilling to wait, lest another family suffer a similar tragedy simply because their child is in the wrong school at the wrong time.
This week they’re launching their own campaign through The Mikey Network, a Toronto-based charity that raises money to donate defibrillators to public institutions.
The goal, Damien said, is to make the devices “as common as fire extinguishers.”
He knows it won't happen overnight.
"I understand that public safety evolves over time. I understand that not all schools are going to have [defibrillators] all at once," Damien said.
The Martins recently donated the campaign’s first defibrillator to Orleans Wood Elementary School.
Medical supply companies Zoll and AED4Life paid for that device, and sent representatives to the school with Damien to deliver it. Darryl Wilton from the paramedics association was also on hand.
Together they showed Orleans Wood principal Melissa Kirkwood how to use the device, including where to place the AED’s pads on children.
“It was also a trauma for the school community, and this feels like a positive step forward to move past that,” an emotional Kirkwood told Griffin’s father.
“It’s bittersweet,” Damien said. “It’s nice to see, but of course I’d rather not be here. I’d rather not be an accidental AED advocate.”
For the Martins, learning to live without Griffin and becoming “functioning people” has been a long, painful road.
They know they have to stay strong for their daughter, Rowan. They’ve attended support groups at the Roger Neilson House, which they said have helped.
But the reminders are everywhere.
On school days they can hear children at Orleans Wood playing at recess.
Inside their home, it’s quiet now. Griffin was a busy 8-year-old boy who filled the house with noise and invented new games for the family to play.
"He had a really unique way of looking at the world. He could make a game out of anything," Damien remembered.
He was also a kind, caring boy who loved his family and thought his house was the best place to be.
There are still cider stains on the couch where Griffin liked to sit. His urn now rests on the little table where he used to sketch.
“Griffin will never drink another hot apple cider in his favourite spot. He’ll never get another ride upstairs, never hear another story or get a hug or kiss goodnight.”