ECG Screening: The Health Practice Every Athlete Needs
Updated: Mar 30
Athletes are required to eat only the most nutritious meals, exercise for hours at a time, sleep at least eight to nine hours, and avoid illegal drug and alcohol consumption at all costs. With every extra set, step, lap, or rep, athletes constantly push their hearts to new levels. It all sounds quite healthy. After all, they’re the ones who have the strongest hearts. But maybe not so. Why are so many athletes falling victim to sudden cardiac arrest, and what can be done to keep them from dying?
Exercise strengthens the heart but is also interpreted by the body as stress. All this strain can “make or break” the heart, and this is especially prevalent among young athletes (commonly student-athletes). Young athletes are twice as susceptible to sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) as young non-athletes. The principal cardiovascular cause of SCA is a heart disease called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). Thankfully, there are organizations across the country that help to prevent sudden cardiac arrest. Two have shared their stories below. This is a must-read for all student-athletes.
In the fall of Cody Stephens’ senior year of high school, neighboring high school districts fought to make ECG (electrocardiogram) screening mandatory. The Crosby high school district nurse worked with Cody’s neighboring school to do this, but Cody died in 2012, just months before his school implemented the program. “The fact that I couldn’t give him a $20 screening drives me insane,” Scott Stephens, Cody’s father, explained.
“When I finally got myself off the floor, and quit walking into walls, and just trying to breathe, I realized my son died of something very very preventable. It’s very preventable with a simple test: an ECG.”
So in 2013, the Stephens family began their fight for legislation, and it wasn’t an easy one. After five years, a bill was finally filed in November of 2018. Then, in June of 2019, Scott received what would be his best Father's Day gift ever. HB76 was signed into law! The first in the country, HB76 is an informed opt-in that is available to student-athletes, drill teams, and even band members!
And the Stephens family, and their memorial foundation, the Cody Stephens Foundation doesn’t stop there. “It's going to be a while for it to be where I want it to be. It’s an overwhelming task but we want a system where screening is in the hands of an athletic trainer (AT) or nurse. We want to place ECG systems with AT’s so that athletes can go in whenever to run the test. Then the Cody Stephen’s Foundation cardiologists can read the results of their ECG for just $10.”
Scott emphasized the importance that “each student should be screened every other year. At a minimum do one before and after puberty until after they are 25 years old.” During a testimony, while trying to get HB76 passed, Scott remembered an afternoon when he received a message about a young man who didn’t get screened, who passed away, even though the Cody Stephens Foundation had screened his school. The Stephens family fought to make this law so that every student-athlete has the opportunity to be screened. “Give all parents a choice, give us all the information. If they want it (screening) we can give it. Although Texas is our focus, if a group wants to screen, give us a call and I'll find someone to guide them through it” Scott explained. “Our motto is screen ‘em all.”
To date, the Cody Stephens Foundation has screened more than 125,000 students.
Evan Ernst, Executive Director of Who We Play For (WWPF) shared a similar story of loss that resulted in a similar story of hope, action, and change. Evan and Rafe Maccarone were teammates and best friends. During soccer warm-ups, Rafe collapsed from sudden cardiac arrest. He had undiagnosed HCM. The next day, he passed away. Rafe’s condition was treatable and most importantly, easily preventable.
Founded in room 114 of Evan’s fraternity house, WWPF has screened upwards of 100,000 students. Evan wants no doubt that regardless if a student is an athlete or not, the individual will receive heart screening. “We are the tip of the spear,” Evan explained. He wants to start a movement so that foundations all over can screen hearts to save lives. By partnering with school board members and hospitals, WWPF is ensuring that all students receive screenings and follow-ups if necessary.
In the state of North Carolina, a group of senators has filed a bill that will require student-athletes to have their hearts screened before participating in school-sanctioned sports. The SCA Task Force will be responsible for addressing SCA in North Carolinian student-athletes. The Task Force is to meet no later than October 1, 2019 and will consist of seven members: two members of the Senate, two members of the House of Representatives, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (or his or her designee), the Superintendent of Public Instruction (or his or her designee), and a representative of the American Heart Association.
It is essential that young people, students, and especially student-athletes receive heart screenings. Student-athletes are the most susceptible to cardiac arrest and with foundations like the Cody Stephens Foundation and Who We Play For, there is no reason to not receive screening. Their job is to make ECG screenings accessible. A simple google search can reveal youth screening programs near you (see also: Screen Across America). Treatment and prevention methods are incredibly practical. No families and friends should suffer a tragic loss as a result of cardiac arrest. Athlete or not, whether it be getting screened or advocating for screening, get involved, take action, and save lives.