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Posted: 3/8/2011

It was a spirited football game last September in Oregon as Central Catholic battled Canby, that is, until Hayward Demison made the go ahead play with seven minutes left in the 4th. Demison, the 6-1 195 lb. high school star, ran 45 yards for a go ahead touchdown to put his team up for the victory.  It was the biggest play of Demison’s life until he collapsed in a heap in the end zone.

His collapse on the sideline didn’t draw much attention at first, even among his teammates who were aware of the exercise-induced asthma condition he had.  However, Lisa Lyver, a cardiac nurse was sitting with the coach’s wife and noticed how long Demison was down.  “I thought, ‘you know, maybe I should go down there’”, she said.

Lyver asked the team’s orthopedist if the staff needed help, and they acknowledged they did, quickly relaying Demison’s history of asthma.  Demison didn’t have a pulse and was unconscious and not breathing. The young athlete was having a heart attack and Lyver acted quickly, beginning CPR. 

Lyver had worked for 16 years at Meridian Park Hospital in Tualatin, but never had been in charge of resuscitating a patient. Demison’s heart hadn’t beated for two minutes and the chances of survival during the cardiac emergency dwindles quickly. Lyver also knew that it usually requires a defibrillator to resuscitate a still heart. However, after about 60 compressions and two rescue breaths, Demison’s heart started beating again.

Demison was rushed to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center where testing revealed that his left coronary artery wasn’t supplying his heart with enough blood during the exerting drive.  “I’m just happy to be alive,” Demison said, “The person that gave me CPR saved my life.”

Although it may be a rare occurrence in Oregon high school football, the reality is that cardiac arrest and heart attacks – both often fatal conditions – are more prevalent than many may realize among high school athletes. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, 15 high School athletes die every year due to heart-related problems.

One week after Demison’s lucky recovery, high school senior Reggie Garrett collapsed in Texas, this time after throwing a touchdown pass. In early January, Zach Gabbard’s heart stopped as he was running down the court in a Minnesota high school basketball game.

The truth is, cardiac occurrence, though often the result of an undetected condition, can strike anyone of any age or apparent health at almost any time. For athletes in physically demanding situations, the stakes are raised.  With more stories of young athletes suffering heart failure during recent years, many are wondering if standardized cardiac testing shouldn’t be required for participation in sports.

Currently, most students through the country are required to get a routine physical before the season starts, but a standard physical is a far cry from a complete cardiac assessment and doesn’t include a test called an electrocardiogram, or ECG.  However, the ECG doesn’t always catch every damaged heart and may even lead to a misdiagnosis due to athletes enlarged hearts from vigorous training regiments.  Because of the chance of an diagnostic errors, cardiologists warn against required screenings, since kids with misidentified heart conditions would have to give up sports they love.

Many doctors disagree, though: testing would help identify many conditions in otherwise apparently healthy athletes and could save lives.  A few forward regions in the country already require ECG’s as part of every teen athlete’s preseason physical.

One mom, Michelle Snyder, thinks an ECG might have saved her daughter’s life.  Jenny Snyder died at age 17 on August 21, 2008 after a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) at a soccer field. As with most cardiac victims, the cardiac arrest was triggered by a structural heart defect that Jenny’s doctors had never picked up on.  She never had any symptoms.

Certainly, taking precautions to save lives is a good thing, but the debate over requiring cardiac screening may not be as merited as it sounds.  The logistics of testing hundreds of thousands of athletes with complex cardiac tests like EKG’s, Chest X-Rays, Stress Tests, Echocariograms, Cardiac Catheterization, or Heart MRI’s is a large requirement, and while it may save some lives, it is also expensive and even incorrect.

Dr. Roshini Raj, assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine and Health Magazine’s medical editor, explained that “when you’re talking about a mass screening, program, you want to make sure the benefit is really clearly there and [the American Heart Association] doesn’t feel that the scientific evidence is sufficient.”  The American Heart Association, or AHA, is the country’s leading advocate of cardiac care and prevention, so to hear that they don’t feel the tests are warned should spike our interest and draw some questions.

Understandably, the tests would be expensive for parents if not provided by schools, and kids in lower income brackets may be forced out of sports due to not meeting the screening restrictions.   Though screening could save some during athletic accidents, it could also make it difficult for others to enjoy sports at all, and the American Heart Association, based on the number of accidents per year and logistics of requiring screening, has not currently endorsed the requirement, at least for now.  “To prevent one death in the U.S….you’d have to stop almost 2,000 kids from playing sports,” noted Dr. Kevin Shannon.

However, encouraging cardiac screening to enable the detection of dormant cardiac conditions is always recommended for athletes, and whether or not it is the law, getting your child screened before undertaking the exertion of sports is a smart move for concerned parents.   The AHA recommends a 12 points screening program that uses a physical exam and careful interview to uncover signs of heart problems in teens and their families’ history.  

Athletes, parents, coaches, athletic directors and school administrators should also take responsibility to be sure their facility has accessible automated external defibrillators, or AED’s.  A responder should be able to retrieve an AED from any point on the facility or grounds – including playgrounds and football fields – and get back to the victim within 3 minutes. If everyone involved takes an interest in ensuring that their school is equipped, AED’s can restore a regular heartbeat to a cardiac arrest victim if applied within 3-5 minutes.  For more information on obtaining an AED for your school, visit www. aed-shop.com for discounted AED packages for schools.

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