Students at Fenneville High School (MI) are mourning the loss of star athlete Wes Leonard, who collapsed and died just minutes after scoring his team’s game winning shot in a basketball game on March 3rd. The medical condition that caused Leonard’s tragic death is dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart defect that causes an enlarged left ventricle in the heart chamber. The left ventricle receives blood from the lungs and pumps it throughout the body and Leonard’s condition caused that pumping function to be impaired. No one was aware of his heart problem.
The condition that led to Wes Leonard’s death is very rare; so was the heart defect that killed an Oregon high school wrestler in February. Last year an Oregon high school football player suffered cardiac arrest shortly after scoring a touchdown. Fortunately, he survived and had surgery to correct an undiagnosed heart problem. Since that near tragedy, the teen’s father has been a vocal advocates for mandatory health screenings for athletes.
A recent study found 1,866 athletes aged 8-39 died suddenly over the 26 years from 1980 through 2006 (full report). While that number reflects a very small percentage of the total athlete population, the statistics do show that these deaths occur with some regularity.
We all know sports carry risks. We recently reported on the epidemic of traumatic brain disorders in football. But those injuries occur after violent and repeated collisions, a consequence of too many concussions over a player’s career. Wes Leonard’s death happened suddenly and without warning. Nothing that happened on the court that evening, or in any game prior, could have portended the tragedy.
This has led to debate across the country about whether young athletes should be getting ECG heart screenings before they’re allowed to participate. The test allows doctors to closely measure the electrical activity of the heart and detect abnormalities. A high percentage of the heart diseases that lead to sudden athlete deaths are detectable with ECGs and some are even correctable, according to many medical experts. Unfortunately, a regular physical exam is rarely a sufficient diagnostic tool.
David Epstein, who has first-hand knowledge of this issue having witnessed a friend die shortly after a track race eleven years ago, provides a comprehensive look at the arguments for and against ECG testing for Sports Illustrated. He argues that while ECG health screenings are effective, implementing a testing system may be difficult because of the costs and resources involved. CNN has taken up the issue as well (video story).
The American Heart Association encourages doctors to follow a twelve step screening process to help prevent sudden death among youth athletes (the ECG is not listed among the steps).
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