JEFFERSON-The Ashe County Board of Education gave its approval this week to expand the district’s heart screening campaign to include all Ashe County Middle and High School athletes.
That means the district’s more than 400 ballplayers, cheerleaders and track stars – including rising seventh graders – will be screened as part of the district’s annual Heart of a Husky program. That’s scheduled to take place at Ashe County High School May 20-21, 2016.
In its third year, Heart of a Husky is a partnership between Ashe County Schools, BREMCO and Ashe Memorial Hospital to offer each middle and high school athlete a free cardiac screening designed to catch dangerous heart problems that might otherwise go undetected.
The screening includes an EKG, or electrocardiogram, designed to measure the electrical activity of an athlete’s heart. The test can pick up the subtle fluctuations in heart activity that could indicate a problem that could be dangerous to a student pushing themselves on the basketball court or the wrestling mat, for instance.
“If we can catch one athlete from dropping over because of a situation with their heart, it’ll be well worth this program,” Ashe County High School Athletic Director Marc Payne said. “There have been at least nine deaths in athletics across the country, and at least a third have been due – they’ve dropped over due to their heart. Whether an EKG will find that or not, you’ve got a better shot than just taking blood pressure.”
The campaign was first organized in 2014 by Amy Walker, Ashe County Schools Director of Technology. She was motivated by a scary episode where her niece, at the time an ACHS student, collapsed while running track due to a heart problem she didn’t know she had.
That turned out to be a condition that could be managed with medication, but Walker called it a memory that moved her to begin planning Heart of a Husky.
Death in young people due to sudden cardiac arrest is rare, according to the Mayo Clinic, but young athletes fall victim to it every year, usually due to heart ailments they didn’t know they had.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a disease in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick, is the most common cause of heart-related sudden death in people under 30 and in young athletes, according to the Mayo Clinic, but athletes may also suffer from coronary artery abnormalities or Long QT Syndrome which creates fast, chaotic heartbeats.
And in many cases, athletes show no symptoms prior to a life-threatening episode, according to the clinic.
According to Superintendent of Ashe County Schools Todd Holden, Ashe will be one of the only school districts in North Carolina to require EKG screenings for athletes, and perhaps the only district that will now require an EKG for each of its athletes every year.
“That simply wouldn’t be possible without the help of BREMCO and Ashe Memorial,” Holden said. “They’re both committed to this, the doctors are giving their time and it’s just taking one more step to insure we’re doing right by our kids.”
And all of the screenings are completely free, Holden said, due to help from both BREMCO and AMH. With 400 athletes expected to be screened this year, that’s roughly $20,000 in cardiac screens in 2016 alone according to AMH CEO Laura Lambeth.
Lambeth said the program’s first two years have identified numerous local athletes with high blood pressure, or hypertension.
“Every year, we identified athletes that needed further evaluation before they could be cleared for sports,” Lambeth said. “I’ve always felt that if it identified one athlete, it was worth it.”
Last year, that list included Kay Sexton’s 13-year-old daughter. Sexton, Blue Ridge Electric’s district manager, said her daughter was identified as having hypertension during last year’s Heart of a Husky screen.
“You don’t even think about this sort of problem because she looks healthy,” Sexton said. “We’ve been able to monitor that and make small changes, but it was absolutely something we needed to know.”
Payne said students are encouraged to register for Heart of a Husky in advance of the May event, but students who miss the two-day screening can still receive their free EKG by contacting Ashe Memorial Hospital.
“It’ll take some calling on their part at that point, but the EKG will still be free,” Payne said. “And they’ll have to get it done before they participate in something next year.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.