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The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

Dexter Illing: A Heartbeat Away From Change

Junior Dexter Illing presenting the Who We Play For heart screenings. (Courtesy of Dexter Illing)

It’s a chilling reality: every two to three days, a young American athlete dies from sudden cardiac arrest, according to The Sports Institute. This devastating event often strikes without warning, a silent, unexpected killer targeting even the most physically fit individuals. Behind the shadows of these tragedies lies an organization on a mission to change these statistics known as Who We Play For.

Born out of immense pain and loss, Who We Play For’s story began when Rafe Maccarone, a young soccer player, collapsed on the field and tragically passed away due to an undetected heart condition. Rafe’s friends, shattered by the loss, started this organization in his honor. Their goal was simple but bold: make heart screenings a routine part of youth sports physicals.

As Who We Play For began to gain momentum, it caught the attention of individuals from various backgrounds, each bringing their unique perspective and drive to the mission. One such individual is a young, ambitious student from WIS. His connection to the cause, although not due to personal loss, was both profound and impactful.

From a school project on defibrillators to an event that has the potential to save countless lives, junior Dexter Illing has made waves within the community.

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When Illing embarked on his 10th-grade project about automatic external defibrillators (AEDs), he was unaware that in the future, it would open the door to a much larger cause. 

“AEDs are used to revive someone after a sudden cardiac arrest,” Illing said. 

His dedication to raising awareness about the importance of AEDs was not just a personal initiative but also caught the attention of organizations actively working in the same space. It was this project that led to his introduction to Who We Play For.

“My father had interviews with Who We Play For about digitizing their documents,” Illing said. “During the conversation, he mentioned my AED project. The CEO, Evan Ernst, expressed interest and approached me about bringing Who We Play For to WIS.” 

Seeing an opportunity to amplify his mission and directly impact more lives, Illing felt an immediate connection with Ernst’s vision. Motivated by his passion for heart health in the young, Illing didn’t hesitate.

At its core, Who We Play For ensures that youth athletes, or anyone for that matter, decrease their chance of suffering from sudden cardiac arrest. Their strategy includes training students to use AEDs, bringing AEDs to schools and, crucially, conducting heart screenings that allow them to save thousands of lives every year.

When it comes to heart screening, it’s a simple process using sticker-like objects attached to the chest, which is not just quick, but also highly effective.

“Using a cardiogram, they measure the rhythm and muscle of the heart, ensuring no irregularities exist,” Illing said. 

As for the decision to provide free heart screenings at WIS, Illing’s involvement played a significant role. 

“[Who We Play For] received a grant from NASCAR, which they chose to implement at WIS due to my determination and passion,” he said.

For Illing, success isn’t about numbers, it’s about assurance. 

“As long as they scan and ensure the students don’t have any underlying heart condition, that’s a win,” Illing said. “Whether it’s five students or more, it’s about ensuring that no one experiences a sudden cardiac arrest.”

The journey, however, was not without its challenges. “It was a long process with many meetings, planning and legalities,” Illing explained. While he primarily handled introducing Who We Play For to WIS and ensuring everything stayed on track, WIS administration took care of legal procedures.

Feedback from the WIS community has been overwhelmingly positive. 

“I’ve received praise from the Head of School and numerous ‘thank you’ emails,” Illing said. However, he emphasizes that recognition wasn’t his objective. “I did it to ensure students are healthy.”

For schools and organizations that are eager to replicate this model, Illing’s advice is straightforward. 

“Be prepared for the long process,” he said. “Persevere and ensure it gets done.”

As a Youth Advisory Board Member, Illing’s commitment is non-stop. Currently, Illing is involved in monthly check-ins with the Youth Advisory Board while also being part of Who We Play For nonprofit’s social media team, helping to ensure a wider outreach.

“Once a month, we check in to ensure heart screenings reach schools,” Illing said. Being the only representative from Washington D.C., he provides updates from the state, working alongside nine other youth board members.

As he continues to advocate this cause, his drive and determination become even more evident. Illing’s aspirations are clear. “I aim to implement heart screenings in as many schools as possible across D.C.,” he said. “That’s where I want to make an impact.”

Illing’s journey, which began as a school project, is now a symbol of hope and a testament to the impact one individual can have on an entire community.

To young changemakers, Illing’s message resonates with hope and determination. 

“Believe in your cause, anything is achievable if you’re determined,” Illing said. “The journey might be long, but the change you see around you is the ultimate reward.”

By Leonardo Sarzi Braga

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Leonardo Sarzi Braga
Leonardo Sarzi Braga, Multimedia Publications Editor

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