Just a few days before entering her senior year of high school, 17-year-old Jenny Snyder collapsed on a soccer field in Glenview.
Ambulances rushed the apparently healthy Glenbrook North student to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with sudden cardiac arrest and died a few hours later.
In contrast to a heart attack, which is typically caused by a blocked artery, cardiac arrest happens when the heart’s electrical system malfunctions and can occur without warning in apparently healthy young people like Jenny.
A vivacious teenager with dark brown hair and a wide smile, Jenny loved going to Chippewa Ranch Camp in Wisconsin every summer. She dreamed of attending the University of Connecticut and liked swimming, running, windsurfing and sailing.
“She was a happy, smiling, wonderful kid that was going into some of the best times of her life,” recalled her mom, Michele Snyder. “We were very, very close.”
Three years after her daughter's death, Snyder and Jenny’s friends are keeping her memory alive and fighting to save other lives through the Jennifer Lynn Snyder Teen Heart Foundation, an effort to put an automated external defibrillator (AED) in every park in Northbrook. The machine guides users through the steps to deliver an electric shock to the heart, a critical and potentially life-saving process for someone experiencing sudden cardiac arrest.
‘She Was Always Smiling’
Jenna Schloss met Jenny the first day she moved to Northbrook from Florida, with her parents, her little brother and a caravan of moving trucks.
They were instant best friends, recalled Schloss, who is will be a junior at Tulane University in Louisiana this fall.
“I remember bringing her to my house and showing her to my room and just being really excited to get a new neighbor,” she said. Their families became close, too, and soon they were dropping by each other's houses unannounced.
“The thing I remember best about her is just sitting in each other’s rooms and talking,” Schloss said. “We wanted to put all the junior high and the high school drama behind us.”
Another one of Jenny’s close friends, Mandi Carozza, met her in sixth grade, when all three girls were at Wood Oaks Junior High School.
“She was always really happy,” said Carozza, who is going into her junior year at the University of Iowa. “She was always smiling but nothing really got to her, no matter what happened.”
Jenny was also generous. As a homecoming tradition at Glenbrook North, boys make a grand, creative gesture in order to ask a girl to the dance. When Jenny found out someone was planning to ask Carozza to the dance by decorating her room, Jenny stepped in.
“She slept over at my house and cleaned my entire room for me, because she knew he was going to ask me,” said Carozza. “It was totally a mess.”
Jenny wasn’t just a neat freak, however; she knew how to let loose. In high school, she decided she wanted to paint over the walls in her bathroom. But before she did so, she asked her mom if she could cover them with graffiti and was giving the OK.
“We covered every wall with permanent marker, each inscription referring to an inside joke,” Carozza said. “We wrote and wrote until the walls were covered.”
Fateful Day: Aug. 21, 2008
The last time Michele saw her daughter before she collapsed in August 2008 was just before Jenny headed to soccer practice at Community Park West in Glenview.
“She got home from work--it was the summer--and she said, ‘Come eat with me,’ ” recalled Michele, who sat down while Jenny ate.
Then Jenny drove to the field to meet several of her teammates from Glenbrook North’s varsity squad, who were playing with the Glenview Soccer Club.
Midway through practice, Jenny told her coach that her chest hurt. He suggested that she take a break and stretch, according to Michele. That’s when she abruptly fell to the ground.
“I was home when the phone rang, and it was one of the girls on the team, who said, ‘Come to the field, Jenny’s fainted,’ ” Michele remembered about that fateful event.
As she was getting ready to leave, she realized she didn’t know what field her daughter was at. When she called back, Jenny’s teammate told her to go to Glenbrook Hospital instead.
“Is she OK?” Michele asked.
She knew it was serious when she overheard someone say, “Is she breathing?”
At the hospital, doctors worked on Jenny for an hour and half, according to Michele. “The problem with sudden cardiac arrest is, it’s quick, there is a very small window,” she said.
Doctors didn’t immediately know what had caused Jenny’s heart to fail. Eventually, they concluded that she was born with an abnormality in the structure of her heart--a condition that could have led to the sudden cardiac arrest that killed her.
But her family had no idea anything was wrong.
“She was an incredible, seemingly healthy, happy 17-year-old,” said Michele.
Aiming to Prevent Similar Deaths
Not long after Jenny’s death, Michele gathered her daughter’s closest friends, hoping to raise money to prevent similar deaths. With a junior board composed of Jenny’s friends and peers, Michele formed the Teen Heart Foundation. Its mission is to raise awareness of sudden cardiac arrest in youths and to raise money to place AEDs throughout Northbrook.
While heart screenings for youths are the primary method of preventing sudden cardiac arrest, once cardiac arrest happens, an AED is the best way to save a life.
“We don’t want another child or anybody in the community to die when AEDs can be used and save lives,” said Michele.
A machine costs from $1,500-$2,000, according to Michele, and the foundation has raised nearly $30,000 so far.
Although the Northbrook Fire Department has AEDs in its vehicles, it can take emergency responders critical minutes to get to a scene, said Capt. Tim Cassidy.
When the electrical system in the heart malfunctions, it fibrillates, meaning that the heart sends an uncoordinated electrical impulse to the body’s muscles, resulting in the stoppage of blood flow to the brain. The only way to restore the heart’s normal rhythm is to deliver an electrical shock by using an AED, according to the American Heart Association.
“If there’s public access defibrillators there, where the public can get to it, there’s a better chance of survival,” Cassidy said.
An AED is also easy to use, according to Michele. The machine walks users through the steps, guiding them with audio and sometimes visual prompts. It will not deliver the shock unless its indicators determine that the person is in cardiac arrest.
Anyone can pick up the machine and follow the directions, although Michele hopes to pair placement in the community with public education through volunteers and the fire department.
“It really is an incredible piece of machinery that we have, and it’s crazy that it’s not everywhere,” she said.
Carrying on Jenny’s Legacy
While the goal is to save lives, the Teen Heart Foundation is also a way for Michele and friends to honor Jenny's memory—and a way to heal themselves.
The group will hold its third annual fundraiser from 6-9 p.m. Thursday at Pinstripes in Northbrook. It’s the responsibility of the junior board to organize the event, said Michele. But they’re more than simply a committee, she added.
“They’re like my lifeline,” she said. “They come to these meetings and they sit here, and it's like a part of Jenny is with me.”
“I think about her every day,” said Schloss.
“There’s times I’m fighting with my roommates and there’s a lot going on at school and I want to pick up the phone and call her,” she said. “If she were here, I know she’d be successful at whatever school she moved on to.”
“I’m turning 21 in a little more than a month, and it's just weird to think that I’m going to be four years older now,” said Carozza.
But, she adds, working with the Teen Heart Foundation is helping her cope.
What would Jenny think?
“Michele’s always saying how she thinks she likes the attention,” said Carozza. “I think she would be really happy about it, because she definitely wouldn’t want her death to be something people were always sad about.
She would want us to find a positive way to deal with it.”
To find out more information about the Jennifer Lynn Snyder Teen Heart Foundation, visit www.teenheartfoundation.org. Tickets for Thursday’s fundraiser can be bought at the website or by calling 847-291-9514.