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Preventing Deaths on the Playing Field

STANFORD, Calif. (Ivanhoe Newswire) -- A 16-year-old drops dead during football practice. A college senior collapses on the soccer field. One in 500 athletes have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a heart problem that can end in tragedy, and most people don't even know they have it. One college is changing the way testing is done in the hopes of saving young lives.

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These young athletes look healthy, but without knowing it they could be suffering from the deadly heart disorder HCM. The heart wall grows thicker, forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood, and then stopping it altogether.

Former college football player, turned high school football coach, Orion Latin knows what it takes to stand out on the field. So do his players.

"They push themselves past the point of exhaustion," Latin told Ivanhoe. "They're trying to impress. They're trying to impress their coaches, and their fellow teammates so whenever that happens, it becomes a problem."

"During hell week, we call it, where we're running up and down hills, stuff like that, it feels like you can't go sometimes, but you just push through it," quarterback Alex Howard said.

"It's a lot of work," tight end Stephan Galaski added.

"We have to back peddle, or sprint, or do a push up, or like side shuffle. It takes a toll on you," high school football player Stephen Dowd said.

"Just run, puke, workout, and do it all over again," said running back Julio VanDierendoico.

Now, cardiologists are developing new ways to identify HCM before athletes develop deadly changes in their heart rhythm.

"It's tragically the most common cause of sudden death in young people and in athletes," Euan Ashley, M.D., a cardiologist at Stanford School of Medicine in Stanford, Calif., said.

Traditionally, screening used a simple questionnaire.

"Most athletes also know that if they write a bunch of things down on the questionnaire, the chances are that they may not be allowed to play," Dr. Ashley explained.

Doctors at Stanford are getting to the heart of the problem, screening all athletes with electrocardiograms to find irregular heart rhythms or arrhythmias.

"That takes maybe three or four minutes in total," Dr. Ashley said. "There are 10 electrodes -- little stickers -- that get put across the chest and on the four limbs, and that gives us 12 electrical views of the heart."

HCM screening is controversial. Cost is the main issue. But these Stanford physicians say their mass ECGs costs less than $1 an athlete. A spokesperson from the American Heart Association says they are not in a position to recommend the impossible and that they just don't have the manpower to create a national program.

But as these young athletes push their bodies, some believe it's not something we should think about any longer. It's something we need to implement now, before any more young lives are lost. After Italy mandated testing for HCM, incidence of sudden death in competition decreased by 90 percent. Here in the U.S., advanced testing is required for all pro athletes, but not for college or high school athletes.

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