Sudden Death in Teens

On an ordinary Thursday in March, Wes Leonard, a 16-year-old basketball star at Fennville High School in Michigan, collapsed after sinking the game-winning shot to end the final game of an undefeated season. When all attempts to revive him failed, he was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

During that same month, two other elite student athletes would die of sudden cardiac death during, or right after a game. All three cases were caused by an enlarged heart, which was a known condition for one, but silent and unknown by the other two.

Each year approximately 2,000 teens die from sudden cardiac death. For most, it is the first recognized symptom of heart disease. It most commonly occurs in boys, who have estimated death rates nearly fivefold greater than girls. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (medical-ese for enlarged heart) is the most frequent cause.

Any death of a teen – particularly a sudden, unexpected death – is devastating to a community. Parents may understandably wonder, if this could happen to a young star athlete, could it also strike their child, who participates in recreational athletics? Are the benefits of team sports worth the risk?

While we all recognize the importance of regular moderate exercise for overall health, it’s easy to become consumed with worry when the unimaginable happens in your own backyard. So here are 7 steps you can take to protect your child from this rare calamity and give yourself some peace of mind:

1. Know the Warning Signs

Has your child ever fainted, complained of a racing heart, or had shortness of breath with exercise? Tell your pediatrician about it.  If your child has these symptoms, an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) test that reads the heart’s electrical activity should be performed.

2. Check Your Family History

Many heart conditions run in families, so tell your pediatrician about any unexplained death in a sibling, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or cousin. Think about less-than-obvious events too. For example, did a family member die in a car accident that had no clear cause? It’s possible that he or she suffered sudden death before the collision.

3. Request an EKG

If your child has a history of fainting or any other symptoms ask your pediatrician for a referral to a pediatric cardiologist for an electrocardiogram test.  A health physical and medical history can only identify about 6 percent of cardiac problems, but with an EKG, the number goes up to 60 percent.

4. Take Your Own Symptoms Seriously

If you often feel light-headed, tend to faint, or tire easily after exertion, talk to your doctor about it. If you have a heart problem, there’s a chance your child has it too. If the condition is detected early you can have your child tested before he shows any symptoms, preventing tragedy for both of you.

5. Evaluate Your Child With a Careful Eye

Parents of sports-loving kids sometimes ignore the signs of fatigue because they want their children to succeed on the field. Also, your child might not tell you he’s not feeling well out of fear you won’t let him play. Compare your child’s performance to that of other kids. Does he get winded more easily? Does he need to sit down more often? Those could be signs that your child’s heart is working too hard.

6. Take the Sports Physical Seriously

That form you need your pediatrician to sign before your child can play sports is more than just annoying paperwork. Think about each question as you answer it, and consider the points above regarding symptoms and family history.

7. Educate Your Schools and Coaches

When a person suffers a cardiac event the common response is paralyzing shock, but early CPR after sudden cardiac arrest can increase survival odds and early defibrillation with an automated external defibrillator (AED), which gives an electric shock to restart the heart, raises survival chances by 75 percent.

The thought that something like this can happen is scary, but the good news is it’s rare. Knowing the risks, symptoms, and precautions can help you and your star athlete (or casual player) enjoy the game.


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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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