The power of one weekend.

Reflections on the 15th Annual Heart to Heart conference.

Written by Elyse Nicholson

TAMPA, FL —- Walking the halls of the Hilton Westshore Hotel, it’s hard not to shed a tear as you meet the faces of children whose stories ended far too soon.

You catch a glimpse of their story as you read each poster. Their lives vastly different, but their end virtually the same.

Each one lost to a common culprit: Sudden Cardiac Arrest.

This medical event occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating due to impact to the chest or a condition the victim was unaware they had. In the case of a cardiac arrest, response must be put in place within 10-minutes before chances of survival are diminished completely.

Related: How to respond to a Sudden Cardiac Arrest Event

Reading these stories, your heart is overcome with emotion. But, as you soon realize, this is not a place for only tears. This is not a gathering of those mourn.

It is a place of hope.

You hear the stories, you meet the parents, and see the work being done. There your sadness meets unexplained peace.

This is the power behind Parent Heart Watch’s 15th Annual Heart to Heart conference.

No parent wants to be a part of this group, one that knows the gut-wrenching pain of losing a child. Initiated in by this common thread, each exudes a level of energy, tenacity, and a spirit that never gives up. They themselves empower you.

This is Parent Heart Watch. And this past weekend I had the unique honor and privilege of being immersed in this group of people that are nothing short of heroes.

How lives are being saved

Rhina Paredes-Greeson knows the pain that comes with the loss of a child suddenly to cardiac arrest. Her seemingly healthy son, Eric, was lost in 2010 after he collapsed without warning, due to sudden cardiac arrest.

Photo by Brown Adventure Group

Rhina received the Founders’ Award during the three-day conference for her life-saving efforts made alongside Hector Paredes through the EP Save a Life Foundation. She is one of many parents who turned their grief into empowerment to make a change in her community and state.

In just 10 years, they have saved over 100 lives from suffering the same tragedy, and helped teach nearly 52,000 people life-saving skills in the state of California, such as Hands-Only CPR and the use of an AED. They are changing the culture.

Related: What is an AED?

“We want the entire world to know that [sudden cardiac arrest] can happen to a seemingly healthy teen,” said Rhina of her daily motivation. “Just because they look healthy from the outside, it doesn’t mean that they are heart healthy.”

That is the passion and power of Parent Heart Watch.

Parents who find a way to tunnel through the grief and channel those feelings and pain into avenues of saving lives. Though severed by their great loss, they are made stronger and seek to do more.

It’s what this annual gathering is all about: Creating a Culture of Prevention for Sudden Cardiac Arrest.

Members maintain their own foundations that seek to drive the mission of eliminating sudden cardiac arrest related death by 2030.

They do this by donating AEDs (the device needed to restart a victim’s heart), teaching life-saving skills like CPR, and screening young hearts to detect hidden heart conditions. Most SCA related deaths occur because of a heart condition the victim didn’t know they had. Providing screenings at young ages helps identify those conditions and/or risks and address the issue before cardiac arrest occurs.

Since it’s inception, Parent Heart Watch members are responsible for having screened over 688,437 youth hearts, placing 7,284 AEDs in local communities, and training 501,014 individuals in life-saving skills.

Photo by Brown Adventure Group

That’s what happens when this group comes together.

These foundations gather annually to glean information, hear the latest research, collaborate, and support each other. Taking that information back to their communities, they inspire change.

Inspiring 12-Year-Old Fighting for Infant Cardiac Screening

Sometimes that inspiration comes in the smallest forms.

During one of our lunch breaks, a bright and peppy young lady came to my table. At just twelve years of age, she was filled with passion and spearheading a mission to see change in the state of Florida.

Savannah Marquez at Heart to Heart 2020 [Submitted photo]

Savannah Marquez is one of many on fire for saving lives. And she’s been hard at work petitioning lawmakers to make cardiac screenings mandatory for all infants in the state of Florida; a screening that saved the life of her brother Nico.

“My little brother, he’s really important to me and without the test he might have passed away. Everything would be so bland and dark without him,” Savannah said in a recent news interview.

What started as a simple project to educate has grown into bills being written and presented before Senate. Just a young kid herself, she boldly spoke before the Health Policy Committee in the Florida Senate on the need for mandatory cardiac screenings for infants. The bill passed unanimously. But the fight isn’t over yet.

“We are are facing a large challenge of getting the bill heard in the House,” says mom Nicole. Savannah is seeking outside support to get the bill on the agenda.

And during the Heart to Heart conference, she bravely went table to table asking for just that.

To support Savannah’s mission, please email her at infantcardiacscreeningbill@gmail.com for specifics and instructions to get involved.

Savannah is a prime example of the power that comes from this conference.

The power of one weekend

As an exhibitor and attendee of this weekend, I left feeling changed.

When you hear firsthand the heartache these parents have faced, see the tears that flow, and witness the victories despite the challenge, it’s inspiring. It reminds you of the amazing work we are all capable of when we put our heart and soul into something.

It truly is one of the most powerful weekends someone can ever be a part of.


Elyse Nicholson is the Communications Coordinator for Emerg-A-Center and author of the #WhyItMatters feature series.