A potentially deadly heart problem has the Warren County Board of Education considering mandatory cardiac exams for high school athletes.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, is a congenital heart disorder which affects almost 1 in 500 people. The condition has entered the public consciousness over the past couple of decades due to the sudden death of several high-profile professional and student athletes.
The deaths of Gaines Adams, 26, of the Chicago Bears, and University of Southern Indiana athlete Jeron Lewis, 21, who collapsed during a game, have both been linked to HCM.
HCM is a genetic disease which results in a thickening of the heart muscle. According to the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association website, the condition is the leading cause of sudden death in children and young adults. It accounts for 40 percent of all deaths on athletic playing fields across the country.
School Board member Bill Zechman is the driving force behind this initiative. One of his main concerns is the condition is virtually undetectable in standard physicals and there are no outward symptoms to indicate the individual has HCM.
“Statistically, the first symptom you have is sudden death,” Zechman said. “You don’t get any other symptoms. That’s it. You just die. This is one of the leading killer of teenage athletes and athletes in their 20s.”
Zechman invited Zach Sutton, a local physical therapist who worked as an athletic trainer at UT, to attend the School Board’s meeting last Thursday to talk about HCM and the importance of early cardiac testing for athletes.
“One of the reasons I’m so passionate about this is one of my friends died of this at the age of 29,” Sutton said. “We were able to get volunteer cardiac screenings through Dr. (Robert A.) Benson last year for the football players.”
Sutton says a cardiac screening is necessary because of a 3 percent accuracy rate in diagnosing HCM with a regular physical exam.
“The routine physicals just don’t cut it,” Sutton said. “It’s 80 percent accuracy with an ECG or EKG, same thing, in detecting this. The good news is we haven’t had any incidents of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy on the sports field in Tennessee to date, but then again there’s a high price to pay if we do miss it.”
Zechman says considering the 1 in 600 rate of occurrence, there is a significant chance some of the 6,000 Warren County students may have the condition and remain undiagnosed.
“We don’t know in our total population of student athletes how many actually have HCM,” Zechman said. “But they’re out there.”
According to Sutton, statistics show the condition is four times more prevalent in boys, but it does affect girls as well.
For Zechman, even the slightest chance of losing an athlete to HCM is not acceptable, particularly if it can be prevented with a relatively simple and non-invasive test.
“We just don’t know which one of our athletes is out there playing who has this condition,” Zechman said. “What I’m suggesting is we take a look at revising our policy on mandatory physicals to include when they start, whatever level, whether it’s freshman, which I think is a good place to start, is that they have this EKG, a process that takes maybe 10 minutes, and then have the strip read.
“The good thing about doing this early on is that it doesn’t have to be repeated every year,” Zechman said. “This is a congenital condition, you’re born with it. Once this condition is detected, it’s detected.”
The main concern for school officials was the cost of the test, but Zechman said proponents are already working to make the process affordable by working with local physicians, cardiology clinics, River Park Hospital, and possibly Warren County EMS, which could administer the test, but could not read the strips for signs of the condition.
Zechman also reported local community organizations, like Breakfast Rotary and Noon Rotary, had expressed an interest in supporting the tests, and River Park has scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue.
A meeting has been set for July 5 at 2 p.m. at River Park.
Zechman asked a formal policy change be added to the next School Board meeting agenda so there could be a first reading, and suggested a special meeting to expedite the second reading so the policy could be in place for the 2011-12 athletic season.