Zach Martin, a rising junior at Riverdale High School, had been running sprints with his football teammates in 2017 when he suddenly collapsed in South Florida's sweltering heat. Minutes later, the 16 year-old was rushed to the hospital. He died 11 days later.
His mother, Laurie Giordano, recalled that tragic day on Monday as she urged Florida legislators to enact a law that would compel high schools across Florida to act more quickly when student athletes show signs of heat stroke and other heat-related stresses.
“I was by his side for 11 days, completely powerless to help him,” Giordano said of her son, who would have been an offensive lineman for the Riverdale High School Raiders in his junior year. “I watched him fight to survive.”
As it stands, high schools aren't required to have life-saving devices and equipment available at the sidelines to respond and prevent heat-related injuries in student athletes. That includes the absence of tubs — or even plastic swimming pools — that can be used to help quickly cool student athletes showing signs of heat stress. Many coaches and other team personnel lack training on how to recognize “exertional heat stroke,” or EHS, and how to administer emergency care.
A bill endorsed unanimously Monday by the Senate Education Committee would set standards for monitoring conditions that might put students at higher risk. At a minimum, it would require schools to t o have containers large enough to accommodate students' bodies — tubs or even inflatable kiddie pools — filled with cold water that can be used to rapidly cool down an overheating student.
Even if heat stroke does not lead to death, it can can cause severe damage to the brain or other internal organs. Florida's scorching summer temperatures, coupled with the region's intense humidity, has contributed to hundreds of cases of heat-related injuries.
Florida leads the nation in high school student athlete deaths from EHS, with four since 2011.
During the 2017-18 school year, more than 460 student athletes in Florida were treated for exertional heat stroke, according to a legislative analysis produced for the bill.
Between 1995 and 2019, 47 high school football players died from heat stroke or related complications. Nearly all of those fatalities happened during routine practices, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.
After her son's death, Giordano founded the Zach Martin Memorial Foundation, which is pushing to get standards in place. She said the foundation has already donated 35 cooling tubs to schools across Florida. Giordano said her family also has sued the school.
In recent years, much attention has been focused on preventing concussions in both professional and student athletes.
Many schools also have moved to address heat stroke risks, said Robert Sefcik, chief executive officer for the Florida Alliance for Sports Medicine.
“We need to take this to the next level and make sure all of our student athletes are safe,” he said.