Parents lobby for teen heart screenings

January 6, 2009 7:25:01 PM PST
The recent death of a Bay Area high school football player has refocused attention on testing teenage athletes for heart conditions. Now, research about to get underway in San Francisco could help parent groups make their case for testing.

The shock of her son Yose's sudden death still haunts Diane Claerbout. She says he had worked out at a gym, a short time before collapsing at his office in Mountain View.

Dying of cardiac arrest in early 20's, with few signs, suggest he had a heart condition.

"He never had a heart screening, or as far as we could tell, when he ran track in high school a good physical," said Claerbout.

She says the memories came rushing back to her when she heard about a young football player Michael Halpin, who collapsed and died at Los Gatos High School a few weeks ago.

After her own son's death, Diane joined a group called Parent Heart Watch. The group lobbies for mandatory heart screenings for high school athletes -- including an EKG.

It is a test they believe could detect irregular heartbeats and other signs that a teenager is at risk of dying.

"We think there are anywhere from 15-17,000 a year," said Claerbout.

The proposal to screen high school and college athletes for heart conditions has come up several times over the past decade. Opponents often argue that the risk doesn't justify the costs, since deaths are relatively rare. But a new study about to begin in the Bay Area could help determine if testing is cost effective.

"It's just so crushing to see someone in their prime die suddenly," said UCSF cardiologist Dr. Byron Lee.

Dr. Lee is a cardiologist with UCSF. His group has just received a grant from the NFL's Hall of Fame to provide cardiac screenings to high school football players in San Francisco.

"What we're planning on doing is EKG'S, and those who have abnormal EKG's will get ultrasounds, and we'll pick up, and from this we plan to pick relatively few, but students who have genetic abnormality that puts them at risk for sudden death," said Dr. Lee.

He says countries like Italy already test all their young athletes with ekgs, which typically run about $25 if an insurance company is paying, and about $100 otherwise. But Dr. Lee admits the cost analysis is more complicated than that.

"Some of those patients will need to see cardiologists, and some will need ultrasounds, and some will ultimately get MRI's on their hearts," said Dr. Lee.

And he says, there's also the chance that a false positive could prevent an otherwise healthy athlete from taking the field. Still he believes the benefits could likely outweigh the costs, and possibly give parents like Diane Claerbout an early warning.

"Had my son had a cardiac screening, this might have been detected," said Claerbout.

The UCSF research plans to begin its study this fall, with football players competing in the San Francisco School District.