Heart Troubles Rare But Deadly in Young Athletes

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Sudden Cardiac Death, Even in Teens Playing Sports

In addition to the usual tests children get in a routine medical checkup, a doctor giving a sports physical will ask the child questions to probe them about cardiac symptoms that might otherwise be missed.

"After her death, two of Sarah's friends told me that she often complained of pain in her chest when she ran," Friend said. "Chest pain during exertion is the number one symptom of cardiac problems in children. If this was discovered, Sarah might have been saved."

Some school districts make sports physicals standard for any child who joins a team. Kids who only play recreational sports, or aren't athletes, aren't usually screened for heart conditions.

More thorough physicals may sound like a good idea, but Abrams said that the practice is controversial because they don't catch many of the hidden dangers that lurk and can yield "false positive" results that might cause a doctor to ban a perfectly healthy athlete from play. They're also time-consuming and expensive.

Increasing Chances of Survival

Secondary prevention, Abrams said, is probably a more realistic approach to saving lives. This includes recognizing an event as it unfolds.

"The athlete may lose consciousness or stagger around for about ten seconds," he said. "They may be dizzy or disoriented or look like they are having a seizure."

Jim Thorton, the president of the National Athletic Trainers' Association, said that having an AED on hand during all athletic events and practice was essential. Just as essential: A staff that's properly trained in lifesaving techniques like CPR and AED use.

"There should be an appropriate, accurate and all-inclusive emergency action plan for every athletic facility and sport," he said. "The staff should know things like who is going to take the lead on initial care, where the AED is and where the ambulance can enter."

Once a cardiac event has occurred, the clock is ticking. The sooner life support can be administered the better. David Wilganowski said that he is acutely aware of that.

"I'm grateful medical help was so readily available. It could have gone a lot worse, so I guess there's a silver lining to everything," he said.

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