Kiss of Death? Hidden Heart Condition Takes Teen's Life

Death of young UK woman sheds light on hard-to-detect heart rhythm conditions.

ByABC News
February 11, 2011, 3:15 PM

Feb. 14, 2011— -- Jemma Benjamin, 18, of Cardiff, Wales, shared a first kiss with her new boyfriend before entering his apartment.

Then, minutes later, Benjamin collapsed on a sofa and died.

Her sudden death shocked her boyfriend and her family, who said that Benjamin, a University of Wales Institute student, was a star swimmer and hockey player who never showed any signs of health problems.

Even an autopsy could not point to a cause of death, according to Britain's Daily Mail. The Daily Mail said medical examiners ruled the likely cause of death may have been a hidden heart rhythm disease that brought on Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome, or SADS.

"This kiss might have been an adrenaline generating experience," said Dr. Michael Ackerman, director of the long QT syndrome clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "High excitement, deep sadness, extreme emotions or strenuous physical activity can be a trigger that can unmask these conditions."

In fact, many people may unknowingly have SADS, an umbrella term for a group of genetic conditions that abnormally affect a heart's rhythm.

"When there's a sudden unexplained death, albeit with a very bizarre trigger, it all hinges on the autopsy," said Ackerman. "The best way to find out is to do a postmortem genetic testing to search for a genetic flaw."

Many people may live their whole lives without triggering an abnormal episode, while others may experience fainting spells or seizures beginning at a young age, said Ackerman.

According to the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes Foundation, nearly 1 in 2,000 people in the U.S. suffer from any one of a range of genetic heart rhythm conditions. The most common form of SADS is long QT syndrome, a condition in which there are longer intervals between heart beats. Many younger children never have electrocardiograms, or ECG screening, which is designed to detect abnormal heart rhythms. And for those who have more subtle cases, an ECG may not be accurate enough to detect an abnormality, said Ackerman.