Raising awareness of heart conditions in young athletes

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MILWAUKEE — The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 14,000 children die each year of undetected heart disease – conditions that may be detected with a more thorough exam.

“March Madness is March Sadness to me. My son died March 12th of 1999. So when March comes, it is another sad day for me,” Felecia Stewart said.

Felecia Stewart’s son John was a strong-spirited gentle giant who stood 7’4″. “Big John,” a native of Indianapolis, was only two months away from going to Kentucky on a basketball scholarship when he called a timeout during a game, collapsed, and died on the court of an undetected heart disease: hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart. John Stewart was just 18 years old.

“It was the worst time of my life. It was a pain that I don’t wish on any parent,” Felecia Stewart said.

Closer to home, Josh Davis-Joiner, a senior at Grafton High School collapsed during a basketball practice on January 16th. He died the same day from sudden cardiac arrest. Caring, full of life and full of love for everyone who came into his path, Josh Davis-Joiner was just 17 years old.

Dr. Marcie Berger is a cardiologist at Froedtert Hospital, and has dedicated her life to heart health. “Sudden cardiac arrest refers to an electrical problem in the heart. What can happen with a sudden cardiac arrest is that the heart goes into a very unstable, very fast rhythm in the bottom of the heart, so that the heart is quivering, unable to pump blood to the rest of the organs, and this is what we call a sudden cardiac arrest. It’s a little bit different than a heart attack,” Dr. Berger said.

Dr. Berger says sudden cardiac arrest is an infrequent event, but she says it is occurring more often among young athletes today. Sudden cardiac arrest has a greater impact on male athletes, and the majority of those stricken play basketball or football. The disease affects a disproportionate amount of African-American athletes, but there is a screening process to help identify young athletes who may be at a higher risk, and warrant detailed screening. “Further testing may include tests like electrocardiogram, which are recordings of the heart’s electrical systems, or EKGs, and echocardiogram, which are sounds of the heart, which may be useful for picking up abnormal thickening of the heart muscle like this abnormal hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. None of it is invasive, and all of it would be painless, and it would help direct the cardiologist or sub-specialist to what might be going on,” Dr. Berger said.

Close the Gap is an educational initiative sponsored by Boston Scientific, designed to educate, equip and empower communities and individuals in cardiovascular care, and to bring awareness to sudden cardiac arrest being the leading cause of death among young athletes.

Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings put his name to a recent high school tournament to promote heart awareness. “It’s just important to give people a different idea about their heart and what’s more important,” Jennings said.

If not for his death over a decade ago, John Stewart might be in the prime of an NBA career today. With the help of loving parents and friends, Feleica Stewart started a foundation in her son’s name. She works in concert with Close the Gap. “I wish I could’ve saved my child with early detection. Sometimes it can be costly, but is your child worth the money? Yes. I wish I had an opportunity to try it again or to do it again. I have hurt every day of my life, and my quest is that other parents don’t feel the pain that I feel. I think if John had a message, it would be ‘mom, keep doing what you’re doing,’ that no other child would have to leave here before their time,” Felecia Smith said.

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