Could ECG Screenings Have Spared Teen Athletes Their Sudden Deaths?

Experts say athletes' deaths don't make a case for ECG screening programs.

ByABC News
March 7, 2011, 3:57 PM

March 8, 2010— -- 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.