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Dr. James Beckerman, Cardiologist, Providence Heart and Vascular Institute
Published: 13 May 2013

They say that lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice. Tell that to Heidi Stewart. Heidi is an 18 year old senior at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, WA. According to news reports, a few months ago she suffered a sudden cardiac arrest following her third period leadership class, where she was helping hang 1,950 pink paper hearts for Valentine's Day – one for every student in her school.

Faculty and staff performed chest compressions and used the school's automated external defibrillator, or AED, to shock Heidi's heart back into normal rhythm. They saved her life and it wasn't the first time that these high school heroes were called into action. This was the second cardiac arrest at Evergreen High in the past two years – they used an AED to save another student's life in 2011.

Heidi was diagnosed with Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia, or ARVD – a heart condition that may impact 1 in 5,000 people. It is one of several possible causes of sudden cardiac arrest in young people. While there is no cure for the condition, identifying it early may impact recommendations regarding participation in sports, and in some situations might lead to a recommendation to have an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, or ICD, placed like a pacemaker in the chest to provide an electric shock to treat a future cardiac arrest if it happens.

ARVD can sometimes be diagnosed with a painless, noninvasive test that takes five minutes to perform.  It's called an electrocardiogram, or ECG. You may have had one in your doctor's office. An ECG can provide information about the heart that isn't provided from a typical doctor's visit or physical examination. We can use an ECG to diagnose ARVD and other heart conditions like Long QT Syndrome and Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy – all are causes of sudden death in young people.

A few years ago I met Teena Johnson, a tireless advocate for young people and heart health, and also the mother of Eddie Barnett, Jr. – a promising high school basketball player who died at Grant High School of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in 2007. She asked me what we could do as health care providers to identify young people who may be at risk and direct them toward the medical care they deserve.

We can be their advocates – by becoming activists ourselves. In 2012, the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute launched Play Smart Youth Heart Screenings - a free heart screening program for young people ages 12 through 18. During the screening, we ask a heart health history, check a blood pressure, and perform an ECG. If our cardiologists believe that further testing is warranted, we also provide a free limited ultrasound of the heart to collect additional information. Since we began our screening program last year, we have identified multiple young people with concerns that required further follow-up. This year, we will be expanding our weekly clinic at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center and providing screenings on-site at schools throughout our communities. 

On the day of Heidi's cardiac arrest earlier this year, students hung 1,950 pink paper hearts at Evergreen High School - one for every student and one for every heart. We owe every single one of them the opportunity to feel safe - because we all have a stake in the game.

Learn more about our mission at www.playsmartgetscreened.org and visit us at www.facebook.com/playsmartgetscreened to become an advocate for heart health in kids. We would love you to be a part of our team.

James Beckerman, M.D.

Cardiologist, Providence Heart and Vascular Institute

Medical Director, Play Smart Youth Screenings

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