Etta Gibson is certain. If her son James had not been screened for potential heart problems before his ninth-grade year began, she might have faced a “senseless” tragedy.
“The heart test saved James’ life. I have no doubt about it. We had no reason to go get his heart screened.”
Gibson, before entering Titusville High (Florida) and trying out for the basketball team, was screened at a session offered at the school. His test was flagged for further consultation, and he eventually was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
There were no symptoms, and his family has no known history of the heart condition.
It was a condition that also affected Rafe Maccarone, the Cocoa Beach athlete who collapsed from sudden cardiac arrest at a 2007 practice and died the next day.
Who We Play For, the non-profit organization that evolved out of the shock of his friends and teammates, now spreads the word about sudden cardiac arrest in young athletes and conducts screenings to prevent it.
Previously known as Play for Rafe, Who We Play For crusades for testing in the form of electrocardiograms and has conducted thousands of tests around the state and beyond.
Who We Play For: Brevard duo sets prevention as heart-health goal
Testing to become mandatory
Now, it has been successful in the quest to make early testing mandatory for local athletes. Brevard School Board members voted in April, 5-0, to begin to require heart screening for athletes in grades 7 through 12.
According to School Board member Matt Susin, Brevard Schools is working on finalizing a policy to require the testing, possibly beginning with the winter sports: boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer and wrestling. There will be an opt-out for parents who prefer not to have their children tested.
Titusville certified athletic trainer Joe Manning would like to see every student tested someday, but athletes — who are most at risk due to intense activity — have been the priority. Annual sports physicals haven’t been enough, as testified to by Gibson’s mom and Manning.
“I always tell people this is one more tool,” Manning said. “You can go to your physical, but for me, this is one more check we can make to make sure everything is being looked at.”
WWPF executive director Evan Ernst said typical physicals include a check of the heart through a stethoscope and a review of family medical history. However, Dr. David Dominquez of 3D Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center said it takes an ECG to find particular abnormalities..
The test, paid for by the athlete, costs $20. Who We Play For has helped create a fund to pay for students without the means. Typically, that includes students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Donors to the fund have included Health First and Parrish Medical Center.
Parents have been provided a schedule of summer testing opportunities, at locations around the county.
Who We Play For’s goal
Who We Play For is the modern version of Play for Rafe, created by Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High students following Maccarone’s death from undiagnosed hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
The organization’s original purpose, in addition to keeping Maccarone’s memory alive, was to purchase automatic external defibrillators for Brevard schools. AEDs deliver a shock via paddles to resuscitate patients.
AEDs are now commonplace in county schools, and leaders Ernst and Zane Schultz helped spearhead their organization’s transformation in 2012, while students at Florida State.
The new goal was prevention rather than reaction to emergencies. Ernst and Zane learned that early detection was the best prevention for sudden cardiac arrest, and they joined with similar groups in six other states to widen the reach and effectiveness.
They’ve since turned to electrocardiograms, which identify athletes needing further attention. These ECGs are simple tests given with a car-radio sized piece of equipment and a handful of wires attached to the body. Results are read by cardiologists, who determine which subjects need to see a doctor.
The tests rarely lead to an athlete quitting a sport, but that’s what happened in Gibson’s case. Warned away from competition with intense physical activity, he turned to golf. He wasn’t thrilled about it, but mom Etta had another priority to consider.
“It’s not easy, but burying him would not be easy, either,” she said.
Ernst estimated about three out of a hundred tests are flagged for follow-up. Of those, about one in a thousand reveals a condition that could force an athlete to quit.
Former Rockledge cheerleader and swimmer Jamie Dudley never had to quit her pursuits. She was tested almost by chance at a WWPF screening two years ago. Mom Nancy decided it was a good idea.
“It was there, and it was free, so I figured why not?” she said. “(Now) we are believers that they should do the screening.”
Jamie, who had been cleared when seeing a cardiologist for another issue, was found to have been born with a condition affecting electrical activity of the heart. She was recommended for a follow-up, and she eventually had a procedure to address it.
Nancy Dudley said she hugged Ernst the first time they met.
“We wouldn’t have known that she needed any of it. I know there are going to be some people who say, ‘why do I have to do this,’ but you don’t realize how important it is until it hits your family.”