Delay the game — heart screening for all student-athletes
We called him Tex, because his real name sounded too pretentious for the ebullient teenager from the Lone Star State. He was bright, cheerful, always smiling. A hardworking student-athlete, Tex gave his all in the classroom, on the football field, on the basketball court, and on the inflatable competitions at the annual SpringFest. As a student and player for my father, and an advisee to both my parents, he was like my older brother. I remember pegging him with snowballs on the most frigid New Hampshire January days, the ones so cold you lose your breath when you step outside the door.
On October 20, 2008, my mom knocked on the door of my room as I was getting dressed. Tex had passed away of unknown causes the night before, asleep in his Texas home. He was 18 years old. Weeks went by and still the autopsy results were inconclusive. Every day I’d rush home from classes and practices, begging my parents for any shred of news. Blood tests proved drugs and alcohol were not involved, but no evidence as to how a healthy teenage boy could die that way suddenly arose.
One day I opened my MacBook to read the news, and again my breath escaped me. Apparently, scientists found that a type of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) medication led to enlargement of the heart, putting excessive amounts of stress on the body as the organ would be forced to work harder to distribute oxygenated blood throughout the body. Males make up the largest percentage of ADHD cases, and Tex himself had had the disorder. I wondered if his medication had anything to do with his passing.
At the end of the winter, the autopsy revealed that Tex had in fact died of a cardiac disorder called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy; his heart was too large. But because his family didn’t have any history of congenital heart defects, nobody had thought to have Tex or his siblings screened.
Simple tests could have saved his life, and now his parents must live with the knowledge that their son’s death could have been prevented. Of course they are not at fault, but the survivor’s guilt will plague them.
In August 2010 senior football player Brian Colvin, 18, died of a heart attack during a Lewisville High School preseason scrimmage.
In early January 2010, Southern Indiana basketball player Jeron Lewis, 21, collapsed on the court and died.
In March 2011, 16-year-old Wes Leonard died on the basketball court after he made the game-winning layup. He died of a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy. Like Tex, he had enlarged heart valves, decreasing the rate of blood flow.
On December 7, 2011, 19-year-old Fred Thompson, a football player at Oregon State University, died during a game of pickup basketball. Like Tex, he had HCM.
Electrocardiograms, or EKGs, test for irregularities in heartbeats and can help detect predispositions for coronary issues. Although running the cost of approximately $1,000 per examination, EKGs should become mandatory for all high school students, particularly male athletes, who appear to be the most at-risk for such tragedies.
Waldwick High School in New Jersey requires EKGs and heart ultrasounds for all incoming students, in addition to the typical entrance physical. With the help of local organizations and companies such as CardiacScan, the costs are offset so that the school can provide these types of services. Since the institution of that policy, three students have been diagnosed with underlying heart problems that would have gone unnoticed.
Tex’s parents, Bart and Doré Koontz, have established a similar organization called August Heart. Their group seeks to educate people in Texas about dilated and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and provide screenings in schools.
Heart screenings need to become mandatory tests, especially for athletes. Contributions from foundations would offset the costs, because too many teens have died too young. At the current time, Loomis Chaffee does not require student-athletes to undergo these procedures, even though it would protect students’ well-beings. Given the proportion of athletes at Loomis, it is only a matter of time before an at-risk student arrives on the Island. To ignore the test’s importance is to neglect the student body. Although inconvenient, EKGs prevent further inconveniences such as death or serious injury.
Were Tex still alive, he would turn 22 on March 29th. If he, Brian, Jeron, Wes, and Fred, had only been screened, they might still be here today. The more aware we are of possible heart problems, the safer our youths will be. Before my thirteen-year-old brother begins high school sports, he will be screened as a precaution. It is my hope that more families will do the same for their student-athletes.