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Save Student Athletes from Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Heart health & school sport physicals



Drew Harrington, 17, has played sports as long as he can remember. Like most kids, the teen from Radnor, PA had his annual summer physical and got the doctor to fill out the school forms he needed to suit up each season. He admits it never seemed all that important. 

That is until Drew’s mom saw a flier for free heart screenings at Radnor High School, administered by doctors from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Through a routine EKG, a test that checks for problems with the heart’s electrical activity, Drew discovered he had a structural issue known as Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome (WPW) that put him at risk for sudden cardiac arrest.

“I was extremely shocked,” recalls Drew. “I never thought it could happen to me. I played sports; I ate healthy.”

His discovery is exactly what Darren and Phyllis Sudman hoped would come out of their mission founding Simon’s Fund, which sets up heart screenings like the one Drew attended. In 2005, their 7-week-old son Simon tragically never woke up from a routine nap. 

The couple’s second child had seemed healthy; there was no reason to suspect he had a congenital heart condition. “Our pediatrician told us to get our hearts checked, because babies don’t just die,” says Darren. As a result, Phyllis was diagnosed with Long QT syndrome, a heart condition linked to 15 percent of all deaths from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). “It’s also one of a handful of conditions that causes student athletes to drop dead while playing sports,” says Sudman. “We wanted to help educate parents so they didn’t lose their child to a heart condition that is detectable and treatable.”

Heart health guidelines

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that about 2,000 people younger than 25 die every year from 
sudden cardiac arrest. Partly in response to the Sudmans’ efforts, about 10 states — including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware — now have laws that require coaches, parents and athletes to receive education on sudden cardiac arrest on an annual basis. 

“Parents need to be aware of warning signs,” says David Shipon, MD, FACC, a preventive/sports cardiologist with the Heart Center of Philadelphia at Jefferson University Hospitals. 

Warning signs include:

  • Chest pain with exertion
  • Excessive shortness of breath 
  • Racing heart 
  • Excessive fatigue on the playing field
  • Passing out
  • Feeling faint 
  • Unknown reason for seizures
  • Dizziness 
  • Sweating excessively 
  • Heart palpitations 
  • Inability to recover as quickly as peers 
  • Being much more tired than peers 

In these cases the athlete needs to stop playing immediately and seek medical guidance. Because some of these symptoms can be associated with far less dangerous ailments, such as the flu or common cold, educating parents, coaches and officials is vital, points out Kevin Charles, executive director of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association (DIAA). 

The DIAA requires mandatory annual cardiac awareness training for officials and coaches, during which participants review signs and symptoms of cardiac arrest and emergency preparedness procedures. Parents also respond to a series of red-flag questions, “And if they answer yes to any question, the physician knows to dig further into that issue,” Charles explains. Parents must also sign a cardiac-arrest fact sheet to indicate that they have been informed of and understand the guidelines. 

Sports physical spot-check

Dr. Shipon urges schools to include stringent detail about heart health on sports physical forms, including questions about family history; student symptoms of chest discomfort due to exertion, palpitations or racing heart; feelings of dizziness while exercising; and history of passing out and seizures. Parents must be vigilant that schools follow protocol; check with your school nurse if you have concerns about your child’s form. 

While these new guidelines are certainly a step in the right direction, some believe even more can be done to save young lives. Making EKGs like the one that detected Drew’s WPW mandatory is a widely debated plan. Proponents argue that these EKGs accurately reflect the condition of a student’s heart, yet they are expensive, take time and, if not reviewed by a trained cardiologist, may misread abnormalities.

In the meantime, Darren Sudman hopes everyone concerned about student athletes will take the current measures seriously and urges parents to do more than just drop a sports physical form off at the pediatrician’s office. “If our society is going to put such a huge emphasis on sports,” he says, “we should make sure our kids are prepared and safe.” 

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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