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Cardiac arrest and youngsters

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Felecia Stewart’s heart sank when she read about Angela Gettis, a 16-year-old Los Angeles cheerleader who collapsed and died of cardiac arrest last weekend during a high school football game.

“It’s like watching your child die all over again,” she said.

Stewart lost her son John in 1999. He was a star basketball player for Lawrence North High School and was on his way to play for Tubby Smith at the University of Kentucky when he collapsed during a game. The cause of death was a congenital form of idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM).

HCM often affects young and athletic individuals and according to the Stanford School of Medicine, it is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in preadolescent and adolescent children.

“If there was more awareness and if schools conducted more screenings, we’d have the opportunity to save a lot of young lives,” said Stewart.

The need for awareness and the desire to save lives is why Stewart formed The John Stewart Foundation. The mission is to increase awareness about the dangers of sudden cardiac arrest in athletes ages 12 to 24. In addition, the foundation provides early detection programs and research initiatives.

Stewart, along with Heart Partners of Indiana, visits high schools and provides echo screenings, which can disclose conduction and structural issues associated with an elevated risk of sudden cardiac death. Dr. Edward Harlamert, a cardiologist with Indiana University Health, encourages echo screenings in addition to physical examinations.

“Screenings will not find all of the athletes who will experience sudden cardiac arrest, but (screening) is something I personally think should be done,” he said. “Every time we do screenings we uncover some heart conditions that the student or athlete should know about, and it impacts their health. Any kind of heart ailment is a lifelong issue that needs to be observed or managed.”

Norma Johnson believes an echo screening would have saved her grandson’s life. Clinton Walker began having seizures in 2006. His parents took him to several neurologists to find the cause but never found an underlying reason. Walker was diagnosed with a psychiatric problem called acute anxiety disorder that doctors said was psychosomatic – meaning the problem was related to emotional stress that caused physical symptoms. He was put on psychotropic medication but it only made matters worse.

Walker died from a seizure while sleeping in 2008. He was 17.

“It wasn’t until an autopsy was performed that we discovered he had a congenital heart defect that no one knew anything about,” said Johnson. “We learned that the seizures he had were an effort by (Clinton) to get his body to release more oxygen to his brain.”

When it was discovered that Walker’s life possibly could have been saved with an echo screening, Johnson said it felt as if he died because the family didn’t have the information.

According to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation, more than 7,000 people under the age of 18 die from undetected heart conditions each year, and young athletes suffer sudden cardiac arrest at a rate two to three times as high their less active peers.

“It’s very disheartening to see kids still dying when there is an option – early detection,” said Stewart. “People think they’re children are healthy. We look at them as young, vibrant and that they’ll live forever. They don’t.”

For more information on The John Stewart Foundation and upcoming echo screenings, visit www.johnstewartfoundation.org or www.heartpartners.net.


Raise funds for The John Stewart Foundation

  • What: The 2011 John Stewart Foundation Gala
  • When: Friday, Oct. 14 at 6 p.m.
  • Where: JW Marriott, 10 S. West St.
  • Tickets: $75 seat or $600 table of 8
  • For more information call (317) 716-2371
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