Debate surrounds heart screenings for student athletes

by Arielle Zuaro
The National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) estimates that at least half of the 100 deaths of student athletes each year in this country are due to sudden cardiac arrest. According to The New York Times, in January and February alone of this year, 29 student athletes went into cardiac arrest, and only four survived.
Sudden cardiac death (SCD) occurs when the heart unexpectedly stops beating, inhibiting blood flow to the brain and organs. Traditional sports physicals often fail to reveal potential cardiac risks, and specific heart tests are performed only on athletes whose health or family histories indicate a need.
“When I was in second grade I had Kawasaki disease [a heart condition that causes inflammation of the blood vessels]  and for a while they asked me questions, and I had to go in for tests like an echocardiogram,” said sophomore softball player Maria Pansulla.
Recent news stories of athletes who unexpectedly die during or immediately after competitions have put SCD in the spotlight.
“I remember hearing about that baseball player [Thomas Adams] who was hit in the heart, and he died,” said sophomore varsity hockey player Eric Hogan.
As a result, many schools have invested in automated defibrillators, portable instruments that can be used by trained adults to shock an athlete’s heart  in case of cardiac arrest.
“[The AED] was purchased by the parents of the Athletic Boosters Club because they were concerned for their children. It’s the only one in the district,”said athletic trainer Laura Friedman.
While rapid emergency medical response to SCD can reduce fatalities, some doctors believe more can be done to identify potential victims before a cardiac event occurs. They advise including noninvasive tests such as electrocardiograms (EKG or ECG) in regular medical screenings for all athletes.
However, an EKG is not always accurate, and neither are the doctors who read them. “The test (EKG) can pick up only about half of the defects that might lead to a heart event,” said Dr. Vic Froelicher, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University, in his study of EKG changes in athletes.
For these reasons, the American Heart Association recommends a careful examination of personal and family history as well as a physical examination before athletes participate in organized sports. It does not support mandatory heart tests.
Controversy lingers over how best to prevent loss of life on the playing field, but the last sign of life in an athlete should not be the first sign of a problem.