New push to screen young athletes

October 16, 2009 7:24:16 PM PDT
There are new calls for a program to screen young athletes for heart conditions.

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It comes after the death of a De La Salle High School student who dropped suddenly on the basketball court. One effort is being led the by the father of another teenage athlete, who died last year in Los Gatos.

Walking into his son's bedroom, still brings a mixture of pride and pain for Tim Halpin. His son Michael was a senior on the Los Gatos High football team when he suffered a fatal heart attack while walking on campus last year.

"Then they took him to a hospital? and he passed away from sudden cardiac arrest," said Tim.

Like most high school athletes, Michael had taken a physical to play, but it didn't include an EKG test that might have spotted his heart condition.

"It's something that could have been easily corrected," said Tim.

The issue of whether high school athletes should receive EKG exams is drawing fresh attention, after the death of 15-year-old Darious Jones, during a basketball game in concord over the weekend -- also of an apparent heart attack.

Earlier this year, UCSF cardiologist Dr. Byron Lee, M.D. led a trial program in San Francisco -- offering free EKG screening to high school athletes in the city.

"We had about 240 kids come through our clinics, and we did EKG's on every single one of them, and we found about 15 of them had EKG abnormalities. We were able to do ultrasounds of their hearts, right there and then," said Dr. Lee.

Dr. Lee says fortunately none of the abnormalities were serious enough to prevent any of the students from playing sports, but he believes the screenings are worth the effort -- pointing to the recent case of Cal freshman Tierra Rogers. Rogers was forced to give up basketball after she was diagnosed with a heart condition -- undergoing surgery that may have saved her life.

"EKG is an amazing test, it takes about 10 seconds to do. And you can pick up a lot of information about someone's heart health," said Dr. Lee.

Critics have pointed to the cost of widespread testing, given the relatively low statistical risk of an athlete having a fatal heart episode. Still, Tim has joined a group called Parents Heart Watch, and is organizing a campaign in Michael's honor, to institute a heart screening program for young athletes in the South Bay.

"We can't bring Michael back, but we can help other parents avoid the heartache we live with every day," said Tim.

The EKG exams cost anywhere between $25 and $100. As for the San Francisco program, a number of doctors and hospital staff donated their time to help keep costs down. Dr. Lee says the 240 screenings were finished in less than a day.

One additional note: The service is being planned for Darius Jones, the De La Salle student who died over the weekend. It will be held this Tuesday in Pittsburg.

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