Chad Falgout’s heart pounds when he sprints down the basketball court, but the 14-year-old doesn’t pay much attention to his most important muscle.
Even when he hears stories about student-athletes collapsing on the court or dying in a locker room, he never considers his heart.
“You should, but I haven’t really thought about it,” said the tall, wiry eighth-grader who admitted his mother made him take a free exam at Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center on Wednesday.
The short, seven-minute Save-A-Heart screening was started by the Louisiana Pediatric Cardiology Foundation in 2012. Last year, the doctors from Baton Rouge’s Louisiana Pediatric Cardiology Associates practice checked almost 1,400 teens in Baton Rouge, Hammond and Lafayette for heart defects and disease, trying to cut the number of sudden cardiac deaths that strike otherwise healthy kids.
About 6,000 children suffer sudden cardiac arrest each year, according to a 2014 report from the American Heart Association, and about 3,000 athletes age 18 and younger die from an undiagnosed heart condition while playing sports, according to the Louisiana Pediatric Cardiology Foundation.
Sudden deaths of otherwise healthy teens grab headlines and shock communities, said Dr. Michael Brumund, one of Louisiana Pediatric Cardiology’s doctors.
“If we can identify one or two or 10 and we prevent them from being a statistic and being the unrecognized sudden cardiac death on the news, then it’s worth it to us,” Brumund said.
Falgout and other football players from The Dunham School were encouraged to visit Brumund’s office during the school’s winter break. They filled out a one-page questionnaire that delved into their family’s heart history and asked pointed questions concerning symptoms that may arise during exercise.
Removing his shirt, Falgout first stretched out on an exam table for a standard electrocardiogram, or EKG, then moved to another room, where a technician applied gel to his chest and began scanning to create several images of the heart, measuring the chamber size and dimensions to search for any abnormalities.
During the four-minute ultrasound, Falgout lay on his side watching his heart’s thump-thump like clockwork on screen.
The doctors will check and double check his results in the next week, looking for anything to prompt a more thorough examination.
“They don’t take more than a few minutes,” Brumund said. “It’s important to do as a public service. We are all like-minded and it’s something we think is important.”
The most common problem, Brumund said, is a thickening of the heart that makes it difficult to pump blood. It affects one in 500 people.
Of the thousands of student athletes he has screened, Brumund has only seen a couple who had to quit sports temporarily. Those who do have a heart condition must monitor their problem as it evolves.
While these diseases also occur in less active teenagers, athletes are at a greater danger, Brumund said. Sports place an increased stress on the heart as the heart works harder and the adrenaline pumps.
“It certainly can happen in a non-athlete,” Brumund said, “although they are generally not doing enough exercise on a daily basis for us to unmask or uncover these types of events.”
No one forced 16-year-old Harris McKay to come, but he wanted the peace of mind the test could provide. He loves football, but he doesn’t see himself playing past high school.
“I feel like it’s necessary for our well-being because so many people are unaware they have heart problems when they play sports,” McKay said.
While 14 schools participate in the Louisiana Pediatric Cardiology Foundation’s program, any school in the state in eligible. Many parents would be glad to have their children checked, said Falgout’s mother, Brandy Jones, while she sat in the waiting room Wednesday.
“You hear of people who are athletes who for no other reason may drop dead,” Jones said. “If these screenings had been available, that may not have happened.”