Jul 30, 2019 Keeping Young Athletes Safe

Thanks to a free screening, one teen was diagnosed with a serious cardiac condition. 

young baseball players sitting together on the benchOne Saturday last summer, Ashley Singer of Beachwood received a call from a friend, who told her that the local community center was holding free cardiac and concussion screenings for young athletes. She decided to take her three children since her oldest child, Jesse, 13 at the time, played baseball and basketball. When they arrived, the line for concussion screening was so long they decided to duck into the cardiac check instead. It was fortuitous that they did.

The exam included an electrocardiogram (EKG), a test that records the heart’s electrical activity. Two days later, Ashley received a call from a\ physician, who told her that Jesse should see a cardiologist right away. “The EKG was very abnormal,” says Loyda I. Rivera, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at Community Medical Center. “He had a classic case of Wolff- Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW).” In this condition, an extra electrical pathway in the heart leads to a rapid heart rate, known as tachycardia. While some people don’t experience any symptoms, the condition can cause dizziness, heart palpitations, shortness of breath and fainting. Most people with WPW have a good prognosis, but sudden death can occur in 1 to 3 percent of people with the condition, says Dr. Rivera.

Jesse is among 30,000 children who have been screened by the Matthew J. Morahan III Health Assessment Center for Athletes, a statewide RWJBarnabas Health program that offers free and low cost cardiac screenings and concussion testing for young athletes throughout
New Jersey. According to the American Heart Association, 90 percent of cardiac deaths in young athletes occur during sporting events.

Although every child who participates in school sports is required by the state to have a physical exam, EKGs aren’t yet a state requirement. “Our screening program provides an extra layer of security for parents, since an EKG can pick up things like heart rate abnormalities that might not be detected during an annual exam,” says Diana Toto, MS, program director.

The day Jesse was screened, about a dozen other kids were checked. The fact that the screening was able to detect WPW, which affects 1 to 3 in 1,000 people worldwide, “was like finding a needle in a haystack,” says Ashley. “Looking back, there were signs of the condition: I’d wonder, for example, why Jesse sometimes would get out of breath quickly. But I never would have thought to ask his pediatrician for an EKG on my own.” To confirm the diagnosis, Jesse had to wear a 24-hour heart monitor. “I was shocked to learn that there were times when his heart rate sped up to 260 beats per minute when he was sitting down,” recalls Ashley. “His cardiologist explained that when your heart beats that fast, a person can have a stroke.”

Today, Jesse, who is in eighth grade, lives the life of a typical teen. He still plays sports and participates in activities like biking and swimming, but he builds in breaks to avoid overexerting himself. Ashley or her husband keep an eye on him when he’s active to make sure he doesn’t overdo it. “Jesse’s cardiologist says he can never swim or bike alone, because there’s a chance he can pass out,” she explains.

Fortunately, Jesse is cautious: If he notices he’s having trouble catching his breath, he slows down or even stops what he’s doing to slow his heart rate. He also sees his cardiologist once a year. If the condition worsens, he’ll require a procedure called cardiac ablation, in which the electrical pathway causing the fast heart rate is destroyed. “I’m so relieved Jesse had the cardiac screening,” says Ashley. “If he hadn’t, he probably would not have been diagnosed.”

Don’t miss the next free cardiac and concussion screening, which is open to all active children, including cheerleaders, athletes and dancers.
DATE: Thursday, August 15
TIME: 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
LOCATION: Ocean County College, Health Sciences Building (Building 102, Rooms 104 and 105)
CARDIAC SCREENING: open to the first 80 children (ages 6 to 18)
CONCUSSION SCREENING: open to the first 120 children (ages 5 to 18) Screenings are recommended to be repeated every two years. REGISTRATION IS REQUIRED.

To register and schedule an appointment, please email teamlink@rwjbh.org.

The Matthew J. Morahan III Health Assessment Center for Athletes (MJM) program travels throughout New Jersey. Screenings take place at more than 30 locations, including community and recreational centers, schools and medical centers. Concussion screenings are offered to children ages 5 and older, and cardiac screenings are open to children 6 to 18. Concussions are caused by a blow to the head, face, jaw or neck that disrupts the normal functioning of the brain and causes the brain to move within the skull. “They’re especially dangerous because kids and their parents may not realize that they have one,” says Diana Toto, MS, program director. As a result, the injury can be left undiagnosed and untreated, which can lead to long-term damage.

Concussion screenings involve a noninvasive, 25- to 30-minute exam known as ImPACT. Before the sports season starts, the child or teen takes a baseline test to establish his or her brain function. If he or she experiences a head injury, then a post-injury test is taken–either through MJM or a pediatrician’s office.The result is compared to the original score to help determine if the child experienced a concussion.

“The goal is to get young athletes active again—as soon as 48 to 72 hours after a brain injury,” says Toto. “Research shows that when activity is introduced under clinical supervision earlier during the healing process, kids recover faster."

Your heart doesn’t beat just for you. Get it checked. To schedule an appointment with a Community Medical Center cardiac specialist, call 888.724.7123 or visit www.rwjbh.org/cmcheart. To learn more about pediatric athletic screenings, visit www.rwjbh.org/morahan.