Recently several college athletes ended their promising sports careers due to a diagnosis of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Why would they do that and what should it mean to student athletes and their parents across America?

First we were stunned when it was announced that 34-game starting basketball point guard, Abel Porter, was indefinitely sidelined by a heart condition. Then just days later, Journey Brown, the prized Penn State running back further jolted the sports world with his own medical retirement at age 21. Both of them were diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM. Though one was playing basketball and one was playing football, they were both playing Russian roulette as well. So is every other student athlete that hasn’t had a proper heart screening.

On average, every three days a student athlete dies from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. It is the #1 killer of student athletes. How has it continued on a deadly rampage amongst our youth almost unchecked all these years? How can we stop the killing spree of the actual #1 killer on school campuses?

Why didn’t they know they had it sooner?

HCM often has no symptoms but also symptoms are explained away as being ‘normal’ for someone playing a sport. Consider these: lightheadedness, irregular or racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, fainting, chest discomfort, dizziness, swelling, and fatigue.

What is HCM?

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, is one of a number of cardiomyopathies which are diseases that affect the heart. With HCM, the heart wall is hypertrophied, meaning overgrown or too thick. Less room in the heart chamber can mean lessened blood flow. The heart can also become stiff and not pump effectively.

How deadly is HCM?

HCM is the #1 killer of student athletes, killing on average one every three days. Sudden cardiac arrest from all causes kills one young athlete every day and is the #1 killer on school campuses. You’ve probably heard of a seemingly healthy athlete unexpectedly dropping dead on the field. Usually HCM is to blame.  It strikes without warning, often death being the first symptom a person experiences. However, the deaths are preventable with detection and appropriately-managed care.

How can HCM be cured?

HCM is not cured; it is managed. With HCM, the heart rate needs to stay low. First of all, the heart needs time between beats to fill fully. Remember there is reduced space in the chamber due to the wall thickness. The heart rate also needs to be suppressed so the heart doesn’t start fibrillating, which is when the heart is more twitching than pumping, due to the heart’s abnormal arrangement of cells in an HCM heart. Such fibrillation means blood is not being circulated.  

The heart rate is kept low by avoiding activities that “get the heart pumping” (like contact sports) and with medications (such as blood thinners). If there is still a high risk of the patient going into sudden cardiac arrest, a defibrillator may be implanted to jolt them if needed. This device does not cure the HCM either but acts as a 24/7 safety net in case the heart rate spikes. In some extreme cases, HCM leads to a heart transplant.

If an athlete has HCM and plays with it for years, why should they stop?

Once a person is diagnosed with HCM and told to cease certain activities, why would they continue to play? Continuing unrecommended activities with a cardiomyopathy like HCM is playing the odds in a deathly way. It would be like playing Russian roulette after you found out five of the chambers were loaded. Consider these facts. On average, every three days a student athlete dies from HCM. 90% of those are male. 67% are football or basketball players. 52% are black. If someone goes into sudden cardiac arrest, even with CPR, if an AED is not readily available and used within minutes, chances of survival are one in a million. Would you play those odds?

Could we really stop this #1 killer?

Absolutely. Here’s some simple ways to start. Pre-participation heart screenings for student athletes. Teach hands-only CPR to students. Ensure AED accessibility in schools and at athletic events.

This is America. Are we ready to put the gun down and stop playing Russian roulette with our kids’ lives? Let’s get going and Get HeartCharged.