By Kathi Bliss
The United States is home to nearly 5 million student athletes. Of those, nearly 10 percent risk desk or permanent disability each time they step on the field or tag in on the court.
“Around this time every year, I start praying that this isn’t the year we lose a student,” Lockhart ISD Head Trainer Jim DelaCruz said on Monday evening. “Whether to a heart condition they didn’t know about, or to heat stroke, or to any of the other dangers that await our athletes, Schools do a great job of preparing the kids mentally and physically to compete, but there are some things you just can’t prepare for if you don’t know about them.”
The hidden dangers DelaCruz refers to are heart defects – sometimes microscopic problems – that cause heart attacks or death in dozens of students each year. Although Lockhart has been lucky not to lose a student on the field, DelaCruz said, other area schools have not been so fortunate. In fact, over the last several years, students in Luling, Austin and College Station, among others, have lost their lives because of time bombs ticking within their chests.
In keeping with their commitment to cardiac health among Central Texas residents of all ages, the Championship Hearts Foundation in cooperation with the Heart Hospital of Austin will offer free heart screenings from 8 a.m. – noon on Saturday, July 25.
“Anything that we can do to prevent these deaths and to protect our students, we should do,” said LISD Athletic Director Melinda Kirst. “It’s not just football players or runners, this happens in every sport.”
Kirst should know.
During her career as a competitive athlete, Kirst came to know a volleyball player by the name of Flo Hyman, a legendary athlete who redefined the sport of volleyball during the 1970s and 1980s. A powerhouse player with a serve in excess of 100 miles per hour, Hyman was a two-time qualifier for the United States Olympic Volleyball Team.
After the Olympics, Hyman moved to Japan, where she played volleyball professionally until Jan. 24., 1986, when an aortic rupture claimed her life while she was on the court.
Hyman’s death was a result of Marfan Syndrome, a hereditary connective tissue disease which is often not discovered until after the patient’s death.
Marfan’s patients are often tall and lean, with long fingers and toes and a body structure that makes them prime candidates for sports such as volleyball, basketball and track. Still, it is one of the many disorders that can lead to athletes’ deaths during sporting events.
The number one killer of student athletes in Texas, however, is a condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which causes a thickening of the heart muscles.
According to DelaCruz, HCM is the main heart defect that screenings such as those scheduled this weekend by the Championship Hearts Foundation seeks to ferret out. However, in the Championship Hearts Program history, nearly 200 student athletes have been referred for additional cardiac testing after a screening showed potential problems.
“Sometimes just the routine physical exam isn’t enough,” DelaCruz said. “These things, this HCM, can only be detected with echocardiograms or other testing.”
The testing, he said, is non-invasive and quick.
“They run the scan with the sound waves, and within two to five minutes, you have the results and then you know,” he said. “Sometimes when the wagon is running fine, you don’t want to walk around and check things out. But if you don’t check it out, something could break down and go wrong.”
DelaCruz said programs like Championship Hearts are especially beneficial for students in districts such as LISD, because without health insurance, cardiac testing can potentially be cost prohibitive.
“They ask for a donation of $10 -$15, but if you can’t afford to make that donation, they aren’t going to turn the student away and not test them,” he said. “And if it can save even one life, it’s already done a tremendous amount of good.”
Championship Hearts will offer free cardiac screenings for Central Texas student athletes at Austin Heart Hospital from 8 a.m. – noon on Saturday, July 25. Austin Heart Hospital is located at 3801 N. Lamar Blvd. in Austin. For more information, including the parental waiver forms required for student testing, visit Championship Hearts online at www.championshipheartsfoundation.org.