| Larry Miller, Christeen Johnson and Teressa Raiford are|
working to ramp up efforts to educate families and
communities about heart health for young athletes.
Photo courtesy of the Eddie Barnett Jr. Foundation
Christeen Johnson is still struggling with the fact that she will never see her son again. But the nonprofit organization she created in his memory, the Eddie Barnett Jr. Foundation, has been quietly growing for years – and now with help from local sports executive Larry Miller the group is moving closer to its goal of a heart health checkup for every youth athlete.
Johnson and business development consultant Teressa Raiford announced last week that the former TrailBlazers president, a bedrock supporter who is now moving to Nike, will continue to build up the roster of corporate backers working to make sure no more young athletes die of cardiac arrest on the court, the field or the track.
"When it comes to heart health, age is just a number," Johnson says. "It used to be just 'old people' who had cardiac events – but there is something we can do about it.
"We've got to start paying attention to our kids," she says.
Barnett had been diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which restricted his ability to play sports; but, the family said, his doctor changed the diagnosis, allowing Eddie to play sports with fatal results.
The issue of young athletes dying of cardiac arrest was back in the headlines late last year when Oregon State University freshman Fred Thompson died during a pickup basketball game; the 19-year-old from California was on the OSU football team.
Then in January, La Center, Wash., teen Cody Sherrell died on the basketball court during practice at La Center Middle School.
| Eddie Barnett Jr. died on the basketball court during a Grant High School|
basketball game in 2005. His friends still post inspirational messages on his
In England this past spring, soccer player Patrice Muamba collapsed on the field but was saved, prompting more calls for athlete screenings for the array of heart problems that can lead to youth cardiac arrest.
In the Vancouver area, the Quinn Driscoll Foundation coordinates heart health checkups, as do a few organizations around the country; Driscoll, a multi-sport athlete, died in 2009 on the Wy'East Middle School track.
Still, the word on youth heart health has still not reached all the families who may be impacted by it; hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and other similar conditions are often diagnosed after a fatal cardiac event rather than through a medical checkup.
That's why Johnson and Raiford have stepped up the Foundation's work to coordinate more local business and corporate support to push awareness of youth heart health; use of lifesaving technologies in public places where sudden cardiac events occur; and establishment of a permanent, comprehensive athlete screening program.
A key aspect of youth heart health, Johnson says, is understanding the difference between a heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest.
A heart attack specifically indicates damage to the heart's muscle which leads to a sudden cardiac event; cardiac arrest, however, can happen even to someone who seems healthy and has no history of heart disease. It may be rare, but it does happen consistently.
"People think most times that if you've been healthy, you're not going to have a cardiac event," Johnson says.
But this is why it's important to keep AEDs in public places such as schools, she says – because sudden cardiac arrest does in fact happen every day to people who appear otherwise healthy, such as young athletes.
Johnson's work has paid off in many ways. The year Eddie died, former Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed into law House Bill 3482, requiring AEDs in public places statewide. Called the Graeme Jones and Eddie Barnett, Jr. Memorial Act, themeasure was pushed through by Rep. Mark Haas with help from Jones' family and Johnson.
Still, the AED placement didn't happen overnight, and Johnson spent years personally equipping Oregon schools and other facilities with AEDs.
Johnson's heart health crusade inspired Dr James Beckerman at the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute, who mobilized his staff and coworkers to start a new program called PlaySmart -- which this year started offering regular athlete screenings.
Now the Eddie Barnett Jr. Memorial Basketball Tournament – which features health information and screenings -- is becoming an annual event. At last year's tournament, Barnett's Grant High School Generals jersey, #34, was officially retired and hung in the gym.
"I am tremendously excited about what the Eddie Barnett Jr. Foundation is going to bring to the city of Portland," said Grant High School head men's basketball coach Tony Broadous, who coached Barnett during the year he died.
"He was a one of a kind young man in terms of friendliness, compassion for others and his love of the game of basketball," Broadous says. "This tournament will honor him in so many ways but most specifically in the area of compassion and love for others.
"Not only will this be shown in the sportsmanship of the players and fans but more importantly in the health information and screenings that will take place during the weekend of the tournament."
In addition, Johnson is putting together Spring and Summer sports health camps where the athletes not only play the games they love – but they learn how to take care of their own health apart from their team activities.
Currently she and Raiford are researching how to take the Foundation to the next level as a regulatory compliance support for AED placement and training, as well as updating legislation to include mandatory placement of the devices in police cars and facilities not yet listed on the House Bill.
One thing Johnson says she would like to see is a celebrity athlete making youth heart health a national priority – but so far the movement hasn't attracted a spokesperson that might rally together all the individuals working on the issue.
"Heart disease is the number one killer nationwide," Johnson says. "But even the American Heart Association, which does so much, they do not have a branch that focuses on young people."
Nevertheless, the foundation's Facebook community is hopping with activity among parents mobilizing to make sure more kids get screened.
Johnson says, her son's personal Facebook page is also very active. There, his friends constantly write messages to him – even seven years later.
"Now a lot of them are going off to college, and they still miss him," she said.
"All of this is really important, and we are saving lives," Johnson said.
"But I would give it all to have my son back."
For now, Johnson has to settle for making sure no more moms feel the same way she does.
For more information go to the foundation's website here.