Screenings May Cut Death in Young Athletes

Fifteen-year-old Devon Hensley had been an athlete for most of his life. He had a physical in November 2007 before the start of baseball season at his high school in Bedford, Ind. His weight, eyes, ears, throat, blood pressure, pulse, and breathing were normal; the doctor at the walk-in clinic cleared him to play.

On April 25, Devon went to practice after school, and spent another hour playing catch with his brother. That night, at 2 a.m., his mother Ericka, who was sleeping nearby, awoke to find him shaking violently.

His parents and paramedics performed CPR, but Devon never woke up. He died that night, and an autopsy later revealed his heart was nearly twice the size a normal 15-year-old's heart should be.

"As a mother ... you just think, how could you not know that something that bad was going on?" Ericka said. "You just don't know."

About one out of every 200,000 high school-aged athletes dies every year, usually during high intensity sports, such as football or basketball. As in Devon's case, the most frequent cause of death is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM.

The condition is the most common genetic heart defect; about 500,000 Americans have it. Symptoms can include fainting, chest pain and difficulty keeping up with other kids during physical activity. But most people are unaware that they have the disease. And for some young athletes, the evidence of the condition comes too late.

Screening for Heart Problems

HCM causes the heart muscle to thicken, which makes it harder for the organ to pump blood. Changes in the arrangement of heart muscle cells can also cause rhythm problems that lead to sudden death, usually without prior symptoms.

In 2006, Dr. Theodore Abraham, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins, helped establish a clinic to treat young athletes who have HCM. Some of his patients had already lost a relative to sudden cardiac death, and many were naïve about the dangers.

"It seems we need to start one step ahead of them seeing me," Abraham said. "I thought community education and awareness would be a good way to go about that."

So, Abraham organized the Hopkins Heart Hype Program, a one-day screening event for young athletes. The first day of screenings took place Saturday at Morgan State University in Baltimore, at the 2008 track and field championship games of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.

In six hours, about 300 student-athletes underwent 25-minute screenings, including weight and blood pressure measurements, an electrocardiogram, or EKG, to check the heart's electrical activity, and an echocardiogram, or ultrasound of the heart. Nearly 50 volunteer medical students, residents, cardiologists, pediatricians, nurses and technicians performed the analyses.

Doctors found one or two dozen athletes who had potential heart problems, such as elevated blood pressure or slightly thickened hearts, but only one was referred to his doctor for possible HCM.

Rakim Hamilton, 18, received a clean bill of health at the screening, but still plans to continue with regular heart checkups. He was shocked when he heard about sudden cardiac deaths affecting athletes.

"You think that nothing can go wrong if you're eating right and exercising," he said.

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