Cardiac Kids: Why Every Young Athlete Needs an Annual Cardiac Exam

I’ll never forget the day Hank Gathers died – or the summer that ensued for that matter. For me, it was a loss that still lingers to this day and was tragically jolted back to mind with the just-as-sudden passing of 19-year-old University of Missouri linebacker Aaron O’Neal, who died on July 12, 2005 after collapsing during a voluntary workout with teammates.

As a young basketball player at Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia, I competed against Gathers several times and spent a major portion of my formative years playing at the 25th and Diamond Streets playground in North Philadelphia that now serves as a memorial to his greatness.

Like Gathers, O’Neal was in excellent condition and had displayed no history of having any cardiac problems prior to his passing, which makes both events that much harder to fathom.

In an interview after O’Neal’s passing, Parkway North High School, head coach, Bob Bunton, stated that O’Neal was a picture of perfect health.

“Aaron had always been a picture of health,” he said. “It was something he really took pride in.” How can a seemingly invincible young man with his whole life ahead of him be tragically taken away by an unknown heart condition? Aren’t the elderly supposed to be the ones with heart problems? Unfortunately, that isn’t the case these days. A cardiac condition can strike anyone of any age, but these tragic events and others, have raised an awareness about the cardiac health of young athletes that never existed prior to Gathers’ death.

Dr. Jack Uhrig, a specialist in internal medicine at Missouri Valley Physicians, in Marshall, Mo., took time out of his hectic schedule to offer his knowledgeable input to this column in the hopes of educating other young athletes about the perils of unknown cardiac conditions. Uhrig explained some of the conditions that could cause a young athlete to suffer with cardiac problems.

“With sudden cardiac death in young athletes, there are probably several different causes. There have been several papers published on this and autopsies on young athletes that have died suddenly,” Uhrig said. “What it really boils down to is usually some kind of problem with cardiac rhythm or some kind of congenital heart disease. There is usually some kind of problem with the heart muscle or one of the heart valves.”

Uhrig said that although there could be myriad reasons for a sudden cardiac attack, he emphatically urged any athletes who have even the faintest suspicion of a cardiac problem to have themselves checked out immediately and extensively.

“The problem with these kind of cardiac abnormalities is that they’re very hard to pick up on when the patient comes into our office for what we refer to as the pre-participation sports physical,” Uhrig said. “When I’ve seen athletes for their sports physicals, lots of times, coaches and everybody, kind of just blow off things thinking these young kids are healthy. We look very carefully at their muscular-skeletal status and then also an exam checking their blood pressure and listening for heart murmurs.”

Back in 1990, tests revealed that Gathers had suffered a mild heart attack and was left with an irregular heartbeat, known as cardiac arrhythmia. Lane Bove, then the vice president of student services at Loyola Marymount University, authorized the purchase of a defibrillator (a device used to shock a heart back into its normal rhythm) at the recommendation of Gathers’ doctors. After the collapse, Schaefer took it to every game Gathers played in.

Gathers saw multiple doctors at the request of Loyola booster Albert Gertsen, Jr. and the doctors agreed that he should rest for a few days and that he should start taking Inderal, a common medicine to control arrhythmia.

The medicine made him sluggish and head coach, Paul Westhead, a basketball legend with Philly ties himself, played Gathers sparingly. On March 4, Gathers arrived at Gersten Pavilion ready to play and his team got off to a quick start, jumping out to an early lead with Gathers in the middle of it all. He was rebounding, scoring and doing all of the things that had professional scouts drooling over his unlimited potential.

His teammate, Terrell Lowery threw an alley-oop pass to Gathers which he grabbed and slammed through the hoop to give the Lions a 25-13 lead with 13:34 remaining in the first half. While heading back to mid-court to get ready to play defense, Gathers staggered and collapsed to the floor.

The doctors checked Gathers’ pulse and in accordance with its instructions, they did not use the defibrillator. The device was only supposed to be used if the person’s pulse was undetectable or barely detectable. They put him on a stretcher and carried him out of the gym. By the time he was outside, the doctors could no longer detect a pulse.

The defibrillator was pulled out and three shocks were administered. The staff worked on Gathers on the scene and then put him in the ambulance, but one hour and 41 minutes after he collapsed, Hank Gathers was pronounced dead.

O’Neal’s passing prompted me to write this column urging all young athletes who are seemingly in wonderful condition, to get an annual cardiovascular screening. Sudden cardiac death [SCD] is a rare event in athletics and more than 20 different causes have been described. However, Uhrig contends that sometimes, detecting symptoms early can be a warning in itself.

“The most important thing is. . . ‘Have you been passing out? Has anybody in your family died suddenly at a young age? Are there any clues that there may be any sort of inherited rhythmic disorder?” Uhrig said.

“I tell the coaches that any kid who has had some kind of episode, that kid should not play and participate until they have been properly evaluated and cleared by a doctor and even then, they may need further testing and I would not let an athlete play if they have passed out – something serious is going on.

“It’s unusual to find a young athlete that has that [cardiac problems] and know ahead of time before they have an event. Most of the time, you don’t get any warning and the first time they have something happen is during play,” Uhrige said.

Other athletes who experienced SCD include marathon runner Jim Fixx (1984), Olympic volleyball player Flo Hyman (1986), former basketball star Pete Maravich (1988), and the Boston Celtic’s All-Star Reggie Lewis.

Isn’t it time we, as a nation, put forth the maximum effort to save the lives of our young athletes? I say, unequivocally, yes.

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