Could ECG Screenings Have Spared Teen Athletes Their Sudden Deaths?

VIDEO: Deaths of a high school basketball and rugby players raises safety concerns.

The sudden deaths of two high school athletes within days have many parents and support groups fighting for heart screenings of all athletes. But many experts say such blanket screenings would not be effective in preventing these kinds of deaths.

Matthew Hammerdorfer, a 17-year-old from Larimer County, Colo., took a powerful hit to the chest during a rugby game Saturday and collapsed on the field. He was airlifted to a hospital, where he died.

An autopsy performed Sunday found the cause of Hammerdorfer's death was cardiomegaly and biventricular hypertrophy, which means an enlarged heart and enlarged ventricles. The Larimer County deputy coroner Kari Jones, however, noted that the family knew about Hammerdorfer's genetic heart condition. Hammerdorfer had previously undergone three heart surgeries because of his heart condition, according to Jones.

Despite the worrisome idea that participating in a vigorous sport like rugby contributed to Hammerdorfer's death, experts said his parents' previous knowledge of his heart condition precludes the idea that mandatory screening could have prevented it.

"It becomes an issue of how was he followed and whether he and his family made a well-informed decision to [allow him to] stay engaged in competitive sports like rugby," said Dr. Michael Ackerman, director of the Mayo Clinic Windland Smith Rice sudden death genomics laboratory at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "If they knew of the risks and made this choice, then tragic, yes, but not relevant to screening."

Hammerdorfer's death came days after Michigan high school basketball player Wes Leonard collapsed and died after scoring the winning shot for his team, leaving his coach, team and the community devastated.

Sudden Cardiac Death and Young Athletes

Both young men's deaths were caused by sudden cardiac death, and experts said it occurs far too often in young athletes.

It is estimated that one in every 350 children may have dangerous underlying heart conditions. But it comes with warnings -- nearly half of those who experienced sudden cardiac death had experienced warning signs.

"Athletes are at higher risk than the general population because they exercise more," said Dr. Jonathan Drezner at the University of Washington.

One major indicator of an underlying heart condition is sudden fainting during exercise, according to the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes Foundation. A family history of congenital heart defects also puts one at a potentially higher risk and in need of screening.

Teenagers and young people dying of heart failure is more common than one might think: An average of 40 young athletes die from heart disease in the United States a year. That's approximately one death every nine days.

Many experts said recognition of early warnings signs is crucial in preventing sudden death. But advocacy groups want additional screening measures, believing broader screening could save lives.

Parent Heart Watch is one such group working to encourage awareness and preventive measures that would avert such deaths. It believes young athletes should get early and mandatory electrocardiograph, or ECG, screening, which looks at the activity of the heart over time.

Other groups also want schools and teams to have heart defibrillators at games, and have coaches and parents learn CPR.

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