March 6, 2011— -- The sudden deaths of two high school athletes this week have parents and support groups working to prevent further tragedies.
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.
The young man's death was caused by a condition called "sudden cardiac death," and experts say it happens far too often to young athletes in the prime of their lives.
An autopsy today found the cause of Hammerdorfer's death was cardiomegaly and biventricular hypertrophy, which refers to an enlarged heart and enlarged ventricles.
It is estimated that one in every 350 children may have dangerous underlying heart conditions.
"Athletes are at higher risk than the general population because they exercise more," Dr. Jonathan Drezner of the University of Washington said.
"And ironically, although we know that exercise is a healthy benefit for all of us, in some persons with an underlying heart condition exercise can actually be the trigger for a sudden cardiac arrest event," he said.
Hammerdorfer's death comes just 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.
Teenagers and young people dying of heart failure is far more common than might be expected: An average of 40 young athletes die from heart disease in the United States is per year, or approximately one death every nine days.
Parent Heart Watch is one support group that is trying to encourage awareness and preventative measures that will avert such tragedies. They say young athletes should get early and mandatory screening with an Electrocardiograph (EKG), 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.
The European Society of Cardiology and International Olympic Committee endorsed standardized screenings that have been credited with lowering the death rate in Italy.
But medical groups in the United States have recommended against implementation of such a system, saying the high costs outweigh the benefits.
Arguments against standardized screenings include the cost of EKGs and the feelings that false positive tests suggesting someone is at risk, when they are not.
Some experts say the money would be better spent putting automatic external defibrillators at every sporting event than on EKG screenings.
Dr. Douglas Zipes, editor of Heart Rhythm, told ABC News that to cover the $1,200 cost of an defibrillator, "you could get 120 fathers to kick in 12 bucks each."
Any renewed focus is too late for Matthew Hammendorfer, who friends say was always smiling and always ready with a joke. Now, many are calling for new attention to a very serious and deadly problem.