Death among young people of SCA poses a serious but little known risk

One lethal physical event kills more Americans each year than lung cancer, breast cancer and HIV/AIDS combined. While some experts say it is under-reported by the media, many of the nation’s youth may still be at risk.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) occurs when the heart unexpectedly stops functioning, which prevents blood from pumping to vital organs throughout the body. SCA kills over 325,000 Americans each year, according to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association. In the month of April alone, 12 children have died from SCA, said Martha Lopez-Anderson, chair of Parent Heart Watch, a national organization that aims to spread awareness about sudden cardiac arrest in young people.

“Sudden cardiac death is the leading cause of death in student athletes and on school properties,” Lopez-Anderson said. “It is widely agreed amongst those who are dedicated to saving young lives from sudden cardiac arrest, that this largely preventable tragedy is grossly under-reported and under-estimated.”

There is a common misconception, however, that SCA is primarily caused by alcohol and drug abuse, Lopez-Anderson added. Many SCA victims were in good health, and had never used drugs or alcohol.

“SCA doesn’t only happen to athletes or drug users; it could happen to someone sitting at their desk at school. This is real. Cardiac arrest happens every day,” said Lopez-Anderson, whose 10-year-old son died of cardiac arrest while rollerblading.

Rita and Richard Helgeson, of Silver Spring, MD., lost their son Andrew to cardiac arrest in 2005, one week before his high school graduation. Andrew, an award-winning scholar and lacrosse goalie at Montgomery Blair High School, went into cardiac arrest due to a heart condition called ventricular tachycardia, when the heart beats rapidly and erratically. He was 18.

“Andrew never smoked, did drugs or drank,” Rita Helgeson said. “There’s this insinuation that [young cardiac arrest victims are] taking drugs, but that isn’t true. People think cardiac arrest is rare but it’s actually common. They think that if they don’t think about it, it won’t happen to them or it won’t happen to their loved ones.”

Helgeson added that if Andrew had taken an electrocardiogram (EKG) and Echocardiogram (ECHO), his condition may have been detected, which could have prevented his death.

An EKG is a heart screening to chart the heart’s electrical activity. An ECHO creates a visual image of the heart through sound waves.

“Parents should demand that their kids are tested,” Helgeson said.

Individuals who go into cardiac arrest can often be saved if an automated external defibrillator (AED), a portable automatic device used to restore normal heart rhythm, is applied to their body. The device can only be used effectively for a limited time, as the human body will die after six to 10 minutes.

The Helgesons launched the Andrew Helgeson Foundation, which was successful in promoting and lobbying passage of a bill, HB1200, informally called “Andrew’s Law.” The bill mandates the placement of AEDs in all Maryland high schools and at all school-sponsored sporting events. It was signed into law on April 25, 2006.

The University of Miami has 60 AEDs located throughout campus, said Valienti Henry, director of the Public Access Defibrillator Program and manager of Loss Control at UM. Generally, the AEDs are located in buildings used for classrooms and gathering places, Henry added.

According to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, 90 percent of SCA victims die. But many experts believe that publicly accessible AEDs, CPR and AED training, and ensuring that all children are screened for heart disease could ultimately save lives.

Of the 444 children who have been screened to date through Lopez-Anderson’s Saving Young Hearts  Foundation, six percent of those were found to have an abnormal EKG that required additional testing.Those parents had no knowledge that their child had a heart condition, Lopez-Anderson said.

Michaela Gagne, 26, who was crowned Miss Massachusetts in 2006, collapsed at a high school track and field event at the age of 15. At 17, she was diagnosed with a potentially fatal genetic heart condition that required her to have an internal cardiac defibrillator implanted in her chest. Gagne said that early detection is what saved her life.

“[EKG and ECHO] screenings should be happening from day one,” said Gagne, who currently serves as a national spokesperson for the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes Foundation and Parent Heart Watch. “Education is also important; children, parents and physicians should be aware of abnormal symptoms.”

How You Can Help Prevent Cardiac Arrest

Get tested: Ask your doctor to conduct EKG and ECHO heart screenings to detect any possible heart conditions
AED awareness: An AED is a portable automatic device used to restore normal heart rhythm in cardiac arrest victims. If an individual goes into cardiac arrest, obtain an AED immediately. If an AED is unavailable at your location, call 911 and request one. According to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, the survival rate is 90 percent in SCA victims if an AED is applied within one minute. The chance of survival decreases with every minute.
Be knowledgeable: Sudden cardiac arrest does not only occur in athletes or drug and alcohol users. In over 100 child SCA deaths, none went into cardiac arrest because of drug or alcohol use, according to members of Parent Heart Watch, a national organization comprised of parents who lost children to SCA.
Learn skills: AED and CPR training can potentially save lives. Contact local schools, universities and fire departments to inquire about training programs.