Written by Matt Wixon
Often-ignored routine heart test could be a lifesaver for HS football players
(Second in a series)
Not long before Zachary Schrah died, he wrote in an essay that “things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.” Karen Schrah honors her son’s words with the Living for Zachary Foundation, which strives to raise awareness about sudden cardiac arrest.
But there could’ve been many more words from the 16-year-old who collapsed while running sprints at a Plano East football practice on April 2, 2009. If only someone had known that Zachary, a 6-2, 225-pound offensive lineman, had a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
But Zachary looked healthy and passed a physical after his freshman year. How could anyone have known?
“It would’ve been found on an echocardiogram,” Karen Schrah said. “He would’ve had an internal defibrillator implanted.”
And Zachary would probably still be here.
This month, the University Interscholastic League began including an information sheet on “Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness” that must be signed by an athlete’s parent or guardian. The SCA awareness form is the product of a special UIL committee that was created to study the issue of cardiac screening for athletes.
The cardiac screening is not mandatory. But Scott Stephens, who lost his son to an SCA death, encourages parents to consider an electrocardiogram (known as an ECG or EKG) test for their kids.
“It’s non-invasive and it takes three or four minutes,” Stephens said, “and it probably would’ve saved Cody’s life.”
Cody Stephens was a star offensive lineman at Crosby, a school about 20 miles northeast of Houston. In May 2012, he was finishing up high school and looking forward to playing college football at Tarleton State.
The 6-9, 289-pound 18-year-old seemed to be in good health. But on a Sunday afternoon, Stephens took a nap in a recliner and never woke up. He died of sudden cardiac arrest and a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or HCM.
HCM occurs when muscle in the walls of the heart thickens. It affects one out of every 500 people. It’s a common cause of sudden cardiac arrest, and according to the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association, the abnormal electrical signals of a heart with HCM can be detected 90 percent of the time by an EKG.
“We don’t need to be losing these kids,” said Scott Stephens, creator of the Cody Stephens Foundation.
Part of the foundation’s mission is to promote affordable cardiac screenings, which are becoming more common through nonprofit groups such as the Cypress ECG Project. Several Dallas-area school districts such as Frisco, McKinney and Carroll partner with the state-wide Cypress ECG Project to offer electrocardiograms to students for $20 or less.
The Living For Zachary Foundation also sponsors low-cost heart screenings, and over the last four years, 1,800 kids have been screened. About 11 percent of those kids, Karen Schrah said, were referred for more testing.
Despite the potential benefits, the American Heart Association does not recommend an electrocardioagram for every athlete. The reasons include the cost and the number of false positives, which can require expensive follow-up tests.
“It’s a controversial topic,” said Dr. Adam R. Shapira, a cardiac electrophysiologist who is on the Living For Zachary board of directors. The AHA’s recommendations are “well-rooted in science,” he said, and heart screenings can’t detect all potential causes of sudden cardiac arrest.
But Shapira sees the benefit in making the screenings more available.
“Just to provide that additional information for students and parents as a supplement to the American Heart Association’s guidelines,” he said. “It’s a matter of adding to the data so we can exclude more things.”
Like Karen Schrah and Scott Stephens, JoAnn Parkinson wishes she had that data before she lost her son, whose SCA death is possibly the most well-known in the state. Reggie Garrett was a senior at West Orange-Stark in the fall of 2010, and the 6-2, 175-pound dual-threat quarterback had a scholarship offer to Iowa State and was on the recruiting radar of many other schools.
After throwing a touchdown pass in the first half of a game in September, Garrett collapsed on the sideline. Parkinson rushed from the stands and held him in her arms. The 17-year-old took one last breath, his mom said, and died.
“I feel his presence all the time,” Parkinson said last month. “There’s not a day, there’s not a minute, that I don’t think about him. I just thank God for the 17 great years.”
After Garrett’s death was attributed to right ventricular cardiomyopathy, his younger sister had an electrocardiogram and was diagnosed with the same condition. Brianne Garrett, who turns 17 this month and will be a senior at West Orange-Stark, had to quit volleyball and stop performing with the drill team. But she is taking medication for the condition, Parkinson said, and is doing well.
The one gift from the tragedy was that it helped prevent another one.
“If we had never had that EKG,” Parkinson said, “I could’ve lost Brianne on the field, just like with Reggie.”
Follow Matt Wixon on Twitter @mattwixon.
Sudden cardiac arrest vs. heart attack
Sudden cardiac arrest and heart attack are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are different.
Heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. It’s a circulation problem and can sometimes lead to cardiac arrest.
Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart malfunctions and suddenly stops beating. It’s an electrical problem, and is reversible if victims are treated within a few minutes.
Source: American Heart Association
About this series
The Dallas Morning News is exploring the issue of heart health and high school athletes:
Sunday: The UIL’s mandate adding cardiac tests before students can participate in athletics has raised concerns.
Today: Matt Wixon looks at families affected by heart-related deaths in athletics and their efforts to help prevent similar incidents.
Tuesday: How local schools are taking measures to screen their students. Is it worth the cost and effort?