MEDFIELD - It happens far too frequently, in stunning fashion. The most notable typically captured very publicly - Loyola Marymount's Hank Gathers; the Celtics Reggie Lewis. Lives in their primes cut short because of heart issues. Today, the statistics are stunning, but the steps to take action have been slow for a number of reasons
“When we hear about a student athlete or any adolescent that goes down suddenly from an undiagnosed cardiac arrythmia or arrest, it’s frightening. It’s scary information,” said Jennifer Garb-Palumbo, who heads School Health Services at Natick High School.
“I went to Needham High School which has got about 2,000 kids in that high school,” said Dr. Jack Cadigan from Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “So statistically, we’re talking about ten or twelve kids in that high school who think they’re perfectly normal, may not be from a cardiac point of view.”
“Every three days a student athlete dies due to an undiagnosed cardiac abnormality,” said Garb-Palumbo.
With those figures as motivation, a non-profit foundation called The Boston ECG Project, is tackling the challenge of proving why an electrocardiogram should be a routine component of every young person's health screening. Dr. Jack Cadigan is leading an effort to publish a study detailing the cardiological risk factors young people face. He's certainly not alone in his pursuit.
“Being able to look at better ways to offer routine screening and ECG’s for our youth for something that’s so preventable, sudden cardiac death, that just seems that it’s very important,” said Garb-Palumbo.
Free testing as part of the study is underway throughout the region. Most recently, ECG Boston was at Foxborough High School, where hundreds of students were screened - each test taking less than five minutes.
“In terms of simplicity, it was really quick and easy,” said Jakob Waryos, a senior at Foxborough High School who runs cross country and track and also plays hockey. “They just kind of slapped on the device and then it was a minute or less of screening, then they took it right off.”
“There is not a school we go into that we don’t find something very significant,” said Dr. Cadigan. “Everything from a life-threatening condition to something not necessarily life-threatening but very important and when you see that over and over again, you start saying, ‘Hey, this is the heart we’re talking about.’”
Issues surrounding the heart don’t get nearly the same attention as say, concussions awareness, which has become more prevalent in the last decade.
“One of the things that’s different about concussion from heart health is with concussion an injury occurs, everyone sees it and there’s immediate symptoms following so you go and treat the student who is injured, concussed,” said Garb-Palumbo. “With heart health, we have students and athletes who are walking around every day and they’re asymptomatic.”
For Dr. Cadigan, this issue is personal, far beyond the lives he touches every day at work.
“I am absolutely more passionate,” said Cadigan.
That’s because Jack Cadigan IV, the cardiologist’s son, was diagnosed with a significant heart anomaly in 2012 when he was randomly screened by his father with an old ECG machine found when the family was making a service trip to Haiti. Jack underwent open-heart surgery to correct the life-threatening issue shortly after and is completely healthy.
“If my son can be saved and now I’ve got parents whose children have died, how can I not extend that offering to them,” said Dr. Cadigan. “It just seems to me, almost morally not right. That’s how I look at it.”
While Young Jack is studying to become a doctor, he’s not there yet. His role in this venture is to be a spokesman – proof positive that testing works.
“I feel like I have to give back in the sense that my life was saved because I had an ECG and I was able to have open-heart surgery,” said Cadigan. “There are kids don’t have that and you hear all the time about kids in sports dropping dead. The truth is my life was saved from an ECG so I can tell my story. I can tell people that you should do this, that maybe because you don’t have symptoms you might still have a problem. That’s kind of the role I serve. I’m somebody that’s very vocal. I can get out there and really advocate for it.”
Despite the advocacy, the passionate connection, it’s still stunning that turnout for testing, even when that testing is offered free of charge, remains low.
“It’s frustrating, because at least for the study, help us define the way to go with this,” said Dr. Cadigan. “One kid’s death, if we can prevent that, is huge, so it’s worth doing.”
“Probably that unknown factor always scares people,” said Waryos shortly after undergoing an ECG screen. “It makes them put off from doing it.”
“Sometimes people don’t always want to investigate further to know,” said Garb-Palumbo. “That being said, I also think there’s just not enough information out there about the importance of heart health.”
Over the course of the next 20-25 years, Dr. Cadigan has a vision of how he’d like to see this issue evolve.
“So my bias, if the study shows what I think it will be, and also knowing other literature around this issue, just like an adult would go to their physician, or provider, and have testing done and get a routine ECG at some point, that a child would also, as part of a wellness physical, at some place in their life, they would have an ECG done to make sure they’re heart healthy.”
The Boston ECG Project is hosting a special event, Wednesday, March 20 called “One Shining Moment.” Novara Restaurant will host the event from 6-10pm, with tickets sold for $50. You can buy tickets, learn more about the foundation and make a donation by visiting the official website at bostonecgproject.com.
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