Require Cardiac Exams to Prevent the Deaths of Student Athletes

Some stories are harder to report on than others.  As a doctor and a father, I can assure you that any story involving the death of a child is the most difficult – especially when that death may have been preventable.

This may have been the case for Wes Leonard, the 16 year-old basketball star from Fennville High School in Michigan.  On Thursday night, Leonard scored the game-winning shot to conclude a perfect season shortly before collapsing on the school court.  He was rushed to Holland Hospital, but attempts to revive him were unsuccessful, and Leonard was pronounced dead at 10:40 pm.

By all accounts, Leonard was a healthy, disciplined student athlete who ate properly and lifted weights in his spare time.  Not only was he the top scorer on his basketball team – in fact, he had surpassed 1000 career points in a previous game – he was also the quarterback for the school football team.

But, as I often warn people, it can be impossible to know what may lie under the surface without the proper tests.  If Fennville is like most high schools in America, they likely require student athletes have a yearly physical on file, but it is my firm opinion that this is not enough.

To minimize the risk of devastating consequences, like death, in any sport – whether it’s track, basketball or football – students not only need a typical sports physical, they also need to have a cardiac physical done as well.  This has to involve several types of tests, including:

–       Family history of cardiac disease

–       An electrocardiograph (EKG)

–       An ultrasound of the heart

These elements, unlike a mere sports physical, would be able to shed light on hidden clinical conditions such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), cardiac arrhythmias and valvular abnormalities that may be present but completely asymptomatic in a young person.  These conditions could have catastrophic consequences if the child does any kind of strenuous physical exercise.

There also must be an automated external defibrillator on site in any school, town or community gym, because if something terrible does happen, without the proper equipment, you will not be able to bring that person back in time.

This is supported by data, which shows that when an AED is used within the first 10 minutes of cardiac arrest, survival rates increase to 80 percent.  However, it typically takes emergency responders at least seven minutes to arrive.

Schools in Italy have these policies and I urge American high schools to implement these procedures as well: require cardiac physical and always keep an AED handy at sporting events.  When it comes to a matter of life or death, the benefits far outweigh the costs.