Midstate group, born of tragedy, works to prevent sudden cardiac death

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – It’s the number one killer among student-athletes. Sunday, a Midstate group born from tragedy worked to change that.

Most students will tell you spending Sunday morning at school is anything but a good morning, but this weekend they’re learning about themselves.

Pam Dougher brought her two sons, 18-year-old Cole and 14-year-old Josh, to Bishop McDevitt High School.

“They’re both athletes,” she said, and they both showed up to get their hearts checked.

“It’s not in the forefront of my mind,” Dougher, a pediatric nurse herself, said, “but I do always worry because it is something that you never know.”

She’s talking about sudden cardiac death. Doctors say a student-athlete dies that way every three days.

“We worry about concussions and the effects they have on our student-athletes,” said Dr. Mike Bosak, volunteering Sunday. “We worry about knee injuries and the effects they have, and they’re both extremely important, but those are things that we can recover from.”

That’s where the clinic comes in. Cole and Josh, plus around 200 other students, got electrocardiograms (EKGs), among other tests, all for free.

“Many of these kids, although they undergo routine physical exams for sports, they don’t get an EKG as part of that physical exam,” said Julie Walker. That’s due in part to the cost of performing that kind of test.

Walker is running the show. She started the Peyton Walker Foundation, named for her athletic, adventurous daughter.

“Anything that was pretty much dangerous and pushing life to the limits, she was A-game for it all the time,” Walker said.

When she was a 19-year-old college sophomore, Peyton suffered sudden cardiac arrest and died. But her dream of working in health care lives on.

“If we can save another family from the heartache we’ve endured, we’ve met our obligations,” Walker said.

Cole and Josh both left with clean bills of heart health. Their mom left with peace of mind.

“It’s a wonderful thing that the family has done by starting this organization,” Dougher said. “Out of their devastating loss, this is just a wonderful thing.”

At the foundation’s first screening earlier this year, doctors discovered three significant findings among students; one led to heart surgery this summer. But more than looking for aberrations, doctors are hoping to educate parents as to the importance of the tests.

Bosak said the main symptom of cardiac trouble is sadly death. Parents should be aware, though, there are warning signs.

Fainting during or after athletic activity is a red flag, Bosak said. After intense exertion, it’s not abnormal, but if it happens during normal physical activity, “that’s something that deserves a check.”

Likewise, a rapid heartbeat can be an indicator of trouble. A faster heart rate after physical activity is normal, but “if you have a sustained rapid heartbeat that does not go down when the student goes to rest, that’s something else that they need to be worried about,” Bosak said.

Some insurance policies do not cover things like pediatric cardiology and that can make it difficult, if not impossible, for some families to get the care they need. But pediatricians are still the “quarterbacks” of care, Bosak said, so if parents have concerns, family doctors can always help.

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