On April 15, 1985, 15-year-old Jason Gruen was walking into Manhasset High School, headed to class, when his heart suddenly stopped and he dropped to the ground, dead. A heart defect had gone undetected. His mother, Susan Gruen Helsinger, who now makes her home in Merrick, was devastated. She still is.
Over the years, though, she has channeled her grief into the Jason F. Gruen Research Foundation, which she established to raise money for research into pediatric heart ailments and to fund hospital wings to ensure that pediatric heart patients receive the most up-to-date treatments.
Gruen Helsinger, however, said she wanted to do more than treat children when they fall ill. She wanted to find a way to detect heart ailments before they turn deadly. And so, in 2007, she approached State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. of Merrick and then Merrick Avenue Middle School Principal Caryn Blum, who is now a Bellmore-Merrick Central District assistant superintendent, about a first-of-its-kind program to provide all MAMS eighth-graders with electrocardiograms and echocardiograms to peer into children’s hearts in ways that a stethoscope cannot, looking for trouble signs.
With help from what was then the Schneider Children’s Hospital at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Hospital (now the Cohen Children’s Medical Center), the Gruen Foundation offered its first set of tests to MAMS students, and in the program’s very first year, a half-dozen defects, some serious, were found. The program, which has since expanded to Grand Avenue Middle School, has been going strong ever since, and more than 1,200 students have been tested, and dozens of ailments have been detected.
In conjunction with Dr. Rubin Cooper, chief of pediatric cardiology at the Cohen Medical Center, the Gruen Foundation offered the testing program to Central District eighth-graders on Sunday, April 21, and Saturday, April 27. “It’s a very good way to make sure our kids are healthy,” said Blum.