Tests Aim to Prevent Students’ Sudden Cardiac Deaths

Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle

Heart Facts

It took an autopsy of 14-year-old football player Christopher Pichon II, who collapsed and died in 2006 after a light workout, for his parents to find out about his enlarged heart and abnormal arteries. Pichon, an athlete at Booker T. Washington High School in Houston, might not have been playing football if his parents had known earlier.

Dr. John Higgins, a Houston cardiologist, hopes a new testing project to detect undiagnosed heart conditions in middle schoolers will help those students and their families make informed decisions about school sports participation. Starting next month, Houston Early Age Risk Testing and Screening, or HEARTS, will offer free cardiovascular exams to 1,500 students at five Houston middle schools to help prevent sudden cardiac deaths. All students will be in sixth grade, their final year before joining school sports. The 15-minute screenings will include a physical exam, electrocardiogram (EKG), and echocardiogram, which is a cardiac ultrasound. Students will complete a health questionnaire in advance.

The Houston Independent School District board is expected to approve the project at tonight’s meeting. The district requires a physical exam, but not heart testing, before students are allowed to participate in sports. “Whatever we can do to protect the health of kids and prevent conditions that put them at risk, we want to do that,” said Evelyn Henry, who directs HISD’s health and medical services.

In 2006, Pichon was the first of four Houston-area athletes ages 12 to 19 who died during or after physical drills in less than a month. In September, an undetected generic defect stopped 16-year-old Adrian Longoria’s heart while he was playing basketball at Willis High School. He survived.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest
According to Higgins, one in every 50 to 100 children has an undiagnosed heart condition. Sudden cardiac arrest hits roughly 1 in 100,000 students each year. He expects 15 to 30 children among the 1,500 students to have some sort of heart problem.
“In some cases, we can treat them and in other cases, the child will not be able to be involved in competitive athletics because of that condition,” said Higgins, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical School and cardiology director at Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine. The $1 million testing program is funded by the Memorial Hermann Foundation and the Houston Rockets. Exams are scheduled to begin May 7 at Key Middle School followed by Burbank, Fleming, Hogg and Long middle schools. Higgins said he hopes to persuade state legislators to mandate heart screenings for all children in Texas and achieve a national standard in 10 years.

Pichon’s father said relatives have discovered undiagnosed heart conditions since his son’s death and the family decided younger son, Cortney, now 15, shouldn’t play football. “We are more knowledgeable and make better decisions about what our children can do and what they should be limited to,” said Christopher Pichon Sr., an elementary school principal in Alief ISD. “That’s why these exams are needed and necessary.”

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