Though heart disease is the leading cause of death in the world, nothing prepares us for the shock of a young athlete who experiences a fatal sudden cardiac arrest. It can happen anywhere in the country, to families of any race or income level, and it happens to young athletes across many different sports each year. Many times, those deaths could have been prevented by a heart health screening like an electrocardiogram (ECG).
In 2007, a Cocoa Beach High School athlete went into sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) and later died of a heart condition that could have been detected with an ECG. As the community grieved, members came together to form Who We Play For, a 501(c)3 organization that helps provide funding so that athletes can have heart health screenings before they take the field. These screenings can identify some of the leading causes of SCA in athletes and help to reduce the number of deaths due to heart problems.
The Numbers Say It All
According to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation, 6,000 to 8,000 young people die of an SCA each year in the United States. Athletes are at the highest risk. Since forming in 2014, Who We Play For has provided ECG screenings for:
- 113,586 total hearts.
- 18,472 athletes in 2017-2018.
Who We Play For has served more than 300 communities across more than 7 states. More than 90 lives have been saved due to identification of serious heart abnormalities and referral to specialists for care. That’s 90 athletes who are alive and well, who received needed care from a specialist for a heart condition that they were unaware of.
Why Are ECGs Important for Athletes?
Protecting young athletes is critically important. While all athletes have been required to have a yearly physical, those screenings, which include questions about medical history, and a doctor listening to heartbeat with a stethoscope, are only about 1% effective at diagnosing heart problems. Having an ECG test can identify about 95% of serious heart abnormalities.
This helps protect athletes who would be at risk for a sudden cardiac arrest by identifying potential problems and referring them to the care of a specialist who can provide the care and additional testing that may be needed.
If an athlete has a family history of heart problems, or experiences symptoms like dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath that lasts a long time, feeling faint or actually fainting, it’s vital for the athlete to receive heart testing before participating in sports.
Most of the time, the ECG shows normal results, and the test gives the athlete and their family peace of mind. If an ECG flags the athlete as high risk, keep in mind, this test is not a final diagnosis. It doesn’t necessarily mean the athlete won’t be able to play his or her sport again. It simply means that further testing is needed to determine how serious the problem is and what care and treatment are needed. Sometimes all the athlete will need is regular monitoring by a specialist.
Providing ECG screenings to athletes can save lives and prevent SCA events in young athletes, and that’s exactly the reason Who We Play For continues to help.
Brevard County Schools Adopt Mandatory Requirement for Heart Health Screenings
As of 2019, Brevard County Schools now require every student in grades 7-12 to have an ECG consent form or opt-out form to be filled out in order to participate in sports programs. Because of the partnership with Who We Play For, Brevard County students receive ECG testing for a reduced cost of $20. In addition, if a student cannot afford the cost of the test, Who We Play For covers the fee.
Having access to heart health screenings helps to significantly reduce the number of students who experience a SCA. Every life saved, every triumph at protecting young athletes is a victory for the whole community.