Health & Medicine

Free heart screenings will check for cardiac arrest risk in young athletes

Vista del Lago Athletic Director Mark Keeton watches a volleyball team at Vista del Lago High School in Folsom on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Free cardiac screenings will be given at Cordova High on Sunday. The screenings can find heart defects in teenagers that would otherwise go undetected. Heart defects can cause sudden cardiac arrest, which is especially common in high-intensity sports.
Vista del Lago Athletic Director Mark Keeton watches a volleyball team at Vista del Lago High School in Folsom on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Free cardiac screenings will be given at Cordova High on Sunday. The screenings can find heart defects in teenagers that would otherwise go undetected. Heart defects can cause sudden cardiac arrest, which is especially common in high-intensity sports. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Three Sacramento area school districts will offer free heart screenings Sunday in an effort to reduce the number of sudden cardiac arrests – the biggest threat to student athletes in the United States.

Different from a heart attack, a sudden cardiac arrest is an abrupt stop to the heart caused by an undetected congenital or genetic heart condition. Such arrests are 60 percent more likely to occur during exercise than at rest, so student and other athletes are at increased risk, according to the California Interscholastic Federation, which regulates school sports.

Parents and physicians nationwide are pushing for school policies that would help coaches detect heart conditions in student athletes and require schools to stock automated external defibrillators, which can help revive someone suffering a cardiac arrest.

In January, Elk Grove seventh-grader Aaron Nguyen died when his heart stopped during a basketball practice. Physicians believe that young people who play basketball, soccer and football and have heart defects are especially at risk because of the cardiovascular intensity of those sports.

“All of a sudden there’s a practice, they’re going through their daily routine and boom – they collapse,” said Mark Keeton, athletic director for Vista del Lago High School in Folsom, who has been advocating for increased cardiac screening. “We have to have the ability to inform parents about the risk they’re taking. And if we can screen these kids, they’ll at least have some idea.”

The Via Heart Project, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group, will hold the free cardiac screenings at Cordova High School this Sunday. The event is a collaboration between the project, the Folsom Cordova Unified School District, the San Juan Unified School District and the Twin Rivers Unified School District. Anyone from age 12 to 25 can receive a free cardiac screening, whether or not they’re enrolled with those districts. Doctors recommend screenings from age 12 or older because hearts are not fully formed before then and certain abnormalities may not have shown up yet.

Organizers plan to check up to 750 children for heart defects that wouldn’t show up in a normal physical exam. Each child will also answer a health history questionnaire and get an electrocardiogram, which will be reviewed by a cardiologist.

The Eric Paredes Sudden Cardiac Arrest Prevention Act, currently awaiting the governor’s signature, would require all California schools to distribute information to parents about sudden cardiac arrest and its symptoms. It would also require coaches to be trained in recognizing the symptoms and pull out any at-risk player. Similar laws already require schools to rest student athletes suspected of suffering a concussion.

The bill is named after a young California football player and wrestler who died of sudden cardiac arrest in 2009. His father, Hector Paredes, who lives in El Dorado Hills, found his 15-year-old son on the kitchen floor, not breathing. After the boy’s death, father Paredes learned that Eric, who always seemed healthy and strong, had a heart defect.

Paredes, who will be volunteering at Sunday’s event, and Eric’s mother now hold cardiac screenings all over the state.

If the heart is never examined, the kids are basically just walking time bombs, like our son was.

Hector Paredes, father of Eric Paredes, who died of cardiac arrest in 2009

“If the heart is never examined, the kids are basically just walking time bombs, like our son was,” Paredes said. It happens. Just get your kids screened.”

At Vista del Lago, Keeton said parents aren’t necessarily as worried about sudden cardiac arrest deaths as they are about concussions, which receive frequent media attention.

“The challenge for us is that (sudden cardiac arrest) happens so infrequently,” he said. “We just have this mindset that it can’t happen to us – it’s not going to happen to my kid. There’s this unknown that’s out there.”

Organizers ask that participants register online by Sept. 16 at viaheartproject.org/screenings. They can also register by phone at 800-284-0125.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

Cardiac screening with Via Heart Project

Cordova High School, 2239 Chase Drive, Rancho Cordova

9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18

Free for people age 12 to 25

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