By Lindsay Davis, Special for USA TODAY High School Sports November 25, 2015
Wyatt Barber died after collapsing at a football practice. He wast just 9 years old (Photo: Twitter)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Lindsay Davis, a former Miss Ohio, is helping spearhead a bill in the Ohio state legislature proposed by State Sen. Cliff Hite that would require all coaches and teachers to undergo education on the symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest. The Sudden Cardiac Arrest Bill is sponsored by Hite and co-sponsored Sen. Tom Patton and will be introduced in January. A companion bill is scheduled for the state House of Representatives. Davis, a former high school student athlete and dancer, was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy at age 17.
Student cardiac arrest accounts for 14,000 deaths annually in children and young adults in the United States and is the leading cause of death in this age group, according to the Heart Rhythm Society. Among young athletes, only one in 10 who suffer SCA survive and 23,000 high school athletes will die from SCA, according to British Journal of Sports Medicine. The Center for Disease Control found that SCA takes the life of at least one child every three days in organized youth sports.
These numbers are staggering and represent a silent epidemic that flies under the radar in youth and high school sports and that needs to change. Sudden cardiac arrest is an important and emotionally charged public health issue that must be addressed.
While on the surface it appears to be a complex problem, practical and simple solutions can be implemented to prevent a number of senseless tragedies.
Sudden cardiac arrest in student-athletes can strike without warning. The athlete’s heart suddenly stops; the electrical system that keeps the heart functioning stops; and research shows the student-athlete dies in nine out of 10 cases. While the limited implementation of automated external defibrillators in school settings has prevented death in a small number of circumstances, many incidents fall outside of these locales or happen too quickly for the utilization of a post-SCA intervention.
The impetus for sudden cardiac arrest lies in an undetected physical defect of the heart. This undiagnosed heart condition manifests itself in a series of symptoms that are often consistent with common conditions associated with physical exertion and athletics such as dizziness and shortness of breath, making the cause hard to distinguish. Of the deaths in student-athletes, 72% have previously reported having symptoms, according to the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. Often, those are not recognized as signs of a serious underlying condition. Shortness of breath, dizziness, extreme fatigue, syncope, and tachycardia (racing heart) are all symptoms of a serious heart condition. You should also be on notice if a family member died suddenly and unexpectedly under the age of 50. All of these can indicate that the student-athlete is potentially susceptible.
The simple solution to preventing a vast majority of these tragedies is education. A population of coaches and teachers who are knowledgeable on these specific symptoms and their corresponding cardiac implications could provide the intervention that these young lives desperately need.
Legislation to protect the cardiac health of student-athletes exists in nine states: Pennsylvania, Washington, Illinois, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware. The state athletic associations in California and Florida have have adopted protocols similar to those mandated in the legislation elsewhere, putting the national total at 11 states.
Compare that to concussion legislation. Strong youth sports concussion safety laws have been enacted in 49 states and the District of Columbia since 2009. Lawmakers and other institutions have created a series of policies and standards to protect the brain health of student-athletes, but few have shown the same attention to cardiac health. A great disparity exists between the urgency to address head injuries compared and the focus on deaths because of sudden cardiac arrest in youth sports.
Nikki Valdez of Sherman Oaks Note Dame freshman Nikki Valdez collapsed and died during an early season practice (Photo: Facebook)
In addition to domestic implementation of preventative legislation, Italy and Israel have national mandatory screening for cardiovascular disease for student-athletes. According to the American Heart Association, Germany, Sweden, England, China, the Netherlands, France, Norway, Denmark, Japan, Switzerland and Spain all have SCA screening discussions in legislation.
“Screening programs have predominantly been implemented in Italy, Israel, and Japan while other countries don’t do systematic screening,” said Dr. Pascal Meier, of the British Medical Journal research team and the editor in chief of Open Heart. “Most athletes have an underlying heart problem which had been unknown but which could be detected with a rather simple screening.”
Legislation is in motion in a handful of states, including Ohio, to help coaches and teachers understand the dangers and symptoms. The bill proposed in the state Senate and House in Ohio would require coaches and teachers to watch an informative eight-minute video on the symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest and the corresponding protocol in dealing with a symptomatic athlete. The proposed legislation requires that these athletes are pulled from competition, whether a practice or game, and examined by a physician. The bill is budget-neutral, costing the state and taxpayers nothing, and is the stopgap that every state needs to implement.
“It is important to raise awareness of the risk and the symptoms – nobody is expecting heart problems in young otherwise healthy athletes,” Meier said. “Unfortunately, heart disease is usually hidden and young people can still achieve enormous performances despite an underlying heart condition. It is therefore crucial to sensibilize athletes, trainers and event organizers.”
Early intervention is a necessary safeguard for student-athletes.
“The best chance for survival results when SCA is recognized immediately, CPR is begun immediately and defibrillation occurs promptly,” said Dr. Larry Creswell of AthletesHearts.org. “The chances for survival decreases with each passing minute.”
Burke County offensive lineman Rod Williams died Oct. 5, nearly two weeks after he initially collapsed at football practice on Sep. 22 (Photo: YouTube screen shot)
Thousands of student-athletes might be one or more practices or games away from having a cardiac incident. The intervention by an educated coach, teacher or parent can save lives. Should the proper measures and mechanisms be implemented, such as the bill being proposed in Ohio, many of these tragic deaths can be avoided. The story can end in a life saved rather than a life lost.
“This is your heart we’re talking about,” said NBA veteran Channing Frye of the Orlando Magic. “(For young athletes) to fully understand the amount of stress they put on their heart every time they work out or compete is huge …
“This is life and death. If a parent or guardian wants to have their child play in high level sports, they should get them tested. It’s about getting more information to make sure your child is safe and their heart is healthy.”
The sad reality is that next to nothing is being done to protect young athletes. Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was asked about his heart health, and the 26- year-old said, “When I stop to think about it, my heart has never been checked.”
“I think the biggest thing I can do as an athlete is bring awareness to the issue,” he said. “Being in the NFL, the common language being thrown around centers on concussions. But, when you look at the data and information SCA is a much bigger issue that doesn’t get the attention simply because it’s not as obvious as a concussion and people can’t see the stress young athletes put on their hearts. So being able to show these young athletes what they can do to screen themselves or help make them aware of what symptoms might be could be the difference from a kid getting misdiagnosed as tired to saving his or her life.”
Young athletes such as Georgia football player Rod Williams, New Jersey basketball player Nixon Geraldo, and 9-year-old Ohio football player Wyatt Barber are among those who have died since the school year started.
Sudden cardiac arrest has no preference. Football players, basketball players, cross country runners, swimmers, lacrosse and soccer players and kids in physical education class have all passed away from an undetected and undiagnosed heart condition. We can change all this by taking action.
We have provided solutions for our athletes’ heads, but what about their hearts? The responsibility of a generation of student-athletes’ lives is squarely in our hands. Write or call your senator or state representative and demand they take action and help adopt legislation that already exists in nine states. One more child is lost to sudden cardiac arrest every one to three days that passes without action — another child that statistically, could have been saved.
This is dedicated in memorandum to the student athletes lost this year alone to sudden cardiac arrest. May your lives continue to inspire us and your passing implore us to the prevention of SCA in other students like yourselves. Kyle Brewer, Damian Campbell, Emma Aronson, O’Maury Chambers, Delaney Riley, Sydney Gallager, Wyatt Barber, Allison Brown, Breanna Vergara, Kaiti Williams, Jonathan Antonishen, Ja’leel Freeman, Ryan Gillyard, Michael Namey, Chase Sayles, Cameron Pepra, Jon Derynda, Sam White, Colt Cardwell, Jack Pogatchnik, Jose Manuel Beltran, Lauryn Neterer, Malik Davis, Matt Skowronki, Andy Vazquez, Leah Goff, Xavier Mendoza, Damian Campbell, Sumner Smith, Isaac Brooks, Dramon Ratcliff, Laquan Pleas, Michael Sanchez, Laura Palma, Aidan Ransom, Omari Chambers, Mark Lewis, Titus Martin Jr. Tekarian Maclin, Paula Hernandez,Sierra Hardenburg, Dramon Ratcliff, Mohammed Sharief, Nikki Valdez and Nixon Geraldo and the many more that were not reported in the media.