DOVER – As preseason for school sports gears up, student athletes are required by the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association to get a physical exam before stepping on the field.
“When doing a physical, we first see if there are any existing medical conditions, any physical issues like previous injuries or trauma, their mobility and range of motion and then blood pressure and heart rate and rhythm because in recent years there’s been increased concern about cardiac deaths in student athletes,” said Pam Williams, a nurse practitioner at the Polytech High School Wellness Center.
In many cases, even if heart problems do not run in the family, there may be causes for concern that can be detected by an electrocardiogram, but not a stethoscope.
“An EKG isn’t required as part of the physical but sudden cardiac arrest is the number one killer of students on the field,” said Greer Firestone, founder of Heart in the Game, a nonprofit organization that makes EKGs available at no cost for all Delaware students ages 10 to 19.
Mr. Firestone’s daughter, Grace, a nationally recognized varsity athlete at Tower Hill School in Wilmington, went into cardiac arrest two days after her high school graduation in 2011.
In Grace’s case, help arrived to the scene only four minutes after 911 was called and she had a full recovery thanks in part to her brother who provided CPR until help arrived.
Many student athletes who go into sudden cardiac arrest are not as lucky as Grace and die only minutes after going into cardiac arrest.
Cardiac arrest is a sudden stop in blood circulation caused by the heart’s inability to contract effectively or not at all.
When blood flow stops, oxygen can no longer reach the brain, causing the victim to lose consciousness. If not quickly revived, the victim could die or have permanent brain damage.
“In our case, our daughter was lucky and fully recovered, but most families aren’t that lucky,” Mr. Firestone said.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t much awareness about heart conditions and many times, causes for concern can be detected with an EKG.”
Since an EKG is not required by the DIAA, Mr. Firestone believed that the least the DIAA could do was to provide information to coaches about sudden cardiac arrest.
With the cooperation of his local legislators, a bill, The Grace Firestone Act, was drafted and then signed into law by
Gov. Jack Markell in August 2014 requiring student athletes and their parents to sign a DIAA information sheet about sudden cardiac arrest.
As a result of the legislation, the DIAA is providing more information to promote awareness, including warning signs of cardiac arrest in schools.
A parent may voluntarily choose for their child to have one performed but the cost is typically in excess of $100, more than many families can perform.
That’s why Heart in the Game, founded soon after Grace’s sudden cardiac arrest, makes EKGs available for students.
EKGs are non-invasive and take only about five minutes to complete. They are conducted using electrodes placed on the skin to record electrical waves from the heart.
An EKG can pick up heart problems such as arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), defects, damage to heart muscles or tissue and heart valve issues.
At the screening, two copies of the EKG are made. One goes to the parent and the other goes to a cardiologist at Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington who will read and report the findings.
“If there is a concern, a doctor from A.I. duPont will call the parent and if not, I will send an e-mail or make a call to let the parent know the results were OK,” Mr. Firestone said.
The next free EKG screening is Sept. 19 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Springer Junior High School at 2220 Shipley Road in Wilmington. Pre-registration is encouraged and can be completed at heartinthegame.org. Pre-registration requires a refundable $15 deposit.
Last year’s event had more than 200 students representing more than 20 Delaware schools.
“We are planning on adding a second screening in October at Sussex Tech (in Georgetown) to make the service more accessible to downstate students but still need more donations to make that a reality,” Mr. Firestone said.
To make a donation, visit the website or call Mr. Firestone at 302-494-3133 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The events offer more than just free EKG screenings, they also include CPR training.
According to the American Heart Association, it’s vital to perform CPR on someone having sudden cardiac arrest and to keep going until help arrives or the victim begins breathing or regains consciousness. If possible, have someone else call 911 so CPR can begin as soon as possible.
At the free EKG session, information about healthy eating and nutrition will also be available.
“It’s sad to see kids with high blood pressure and poor eating habits because those can lead to heart problems and if we can reduce the risk of heart problems, we should,” Mr. Firestone said.