At a time when her young life should have been just beginning, Peyton Walker, a 19-year-old sophomore at King’s College, died suddenly on Nov. 2, 2013.
Peyton was taken by a sudden cardiac arrest incident related to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the genetic heart condition that she shared with her mother, Julie. During the interim, however, young Peyton lived life to the fullest, engaging in snowboarding, rock climbing, hiking or most anything that involved adventure and the outdoors.
Although Julie and husband Norm were devastated by the loss of their beautiful, vibrant daughter who was studying to become a physician’s assistant, it didn’t take long for Julie to become proactive in the wake of her grief. The day Peyton died, she was wearing a T-shirt that read, “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
“How could I not carry on?” said Julie, of Mechanicsburg. “Every day, I focused that I’ve got to get my two feet on the floor and go. Wallowing and doing nothing was not an option. You have to keep going. It’s a choice. My daughter wanted to work in health care, and this was her mission.”
In the months that followed, Julie sowed the first seeds of what would become the Peyton Walker Foundation, of which she is now the executive director. The nonprofit organization was founded with a mission of increasing public awareness and survival rates of sudden cardiac arrest through education, screening and training. The organization’s first public screening took place at Trinity High School in Camp Hill in 2015. Since then, screenings have expanded beyond Cumberland County to include Dauphin, Perry, York and Lancaster counties and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area, where Peyton attended King’s College.
Sadly, Peyton hasn’t been the only young person to lose her life to sudden cardiac arrest, or SCA. Every three days, a student athlete dies from the affliction, the number-one killer of student athletes in the United States. In fact, central Pennsylvania recently was hit by the sudden deaths of three student athletes.
However, most heart conditions that lead to SCA are considered detectable and treatable, Peyton Walker Foundation representatives say. Therefore, the foundation holds free heart screening clinics for students ages 12 to 19 throughout central Pennsylvania. Additionally, AED (automated external defibrillator) and CPR training is given to all students who attend the screenings, since these devices increase the chances of survival for those stricken.
By March 2019, the Peyton Walker Foundation had screened around 2,100 young people in central Pennsylvania and the Wilkes-Barre area. Of those screened, at least 38 were found to have “issues,” Julie said.
“Families don’t always follow up on things, so it’s difficult to track exactly what happens afterwards,” noted Julie, who was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in her late 20s. “Some who are found with issues are monitored or have surgery. Sometimes, the parents get screened to see if it’s something that’s hereditary.”
Peyton had received regular screenings since toddlerhood.
The Peyton Walker Foundation also provides free, fully certified CPR/AED training classes to members of the community. In addition, the foundation has donated more than 20 AEDs and supplies to several organizations in the area, including police departments, schools, athletic organizations and public venues.
In fact, the foundation launched a program on March 1 to install 21 new AEDs throughout the Harrisburg school district. The program was initiated in conjunction with Harrisburg schools, PinnacleHealth Foundation, UPMC Pinnacle, state and municipal leaders, students and others. Cougar Academy students in Harrisburg also received CPR and AED training.
Up at King’s College, the foundation has awarded more than $35,000 in scholarship funds for students enrolled in the physician assistant program. The privately funded scholarships are earmarked for students who plan healthcare careers as Peyton had.
Julie said that she is “blessed with a giant army of volunteers” who help spread the messages of the Peyton Walker Foundation. Susan Sherwood of Dillsburg is one of about 125 volunteers assisting the organization through fundraisers and heart screenings.
“I help in any way that I can,” said Sherwood, a family friend whose son was close to Peyton. “I feel very strongly about this.”
Just seven months after Peyton’s death, Sherwood’s husband, Carlton, lost his life to heart issues at age 67.
“We really admire Julie’s strength and perseverance in doing this work,” Sherwood said of her longtime friend. “We want to make to make sure that no other families ever have to suffer this kind of pain.”
To learn more about the Peyton Walker Foundation, including upcoming screenings and events, visit www.peytonwalker.org.