I was born with tetralogy of Fallot, one of the most common congenital heart defects. In 1965, when I was 5 years old, I had my first corrective surgery. My parents were told I had a 50/50 chance of surviving. I did.
Nowadays, they do this surgery on newborns, and it is fairly routine. My surgery was considered somewhat primitive back then, and I developed some cardiac arrhythmias later in life; my doctors said they likely came about from scar tissue from my earlier surgery. My first arrhythmia (around age 30) was atrial fibrillation, which was well-handled with some medicine.
Six years later, my wife, a physician, and I were gardening and I suddenly felt lightheaded and dizzy. I thought I had broken through my medicine and was having rapid atrial fibrillation. She immediately recognized it as something much more serious. Fortunately, we were minutes away from a hospital, and they were able to convert me back to sinus rhythm with medicine, though they did have defibrillator paddles ready to shock me back into normal rhythm.
I had experienced ventricular tachycardia, a much more dangerous arrhythmia that can lead to death if not dealt with quickly. I was sent home with some new medicines and continued my normal life.
Two years later, while playing volleyball, I broke through my medicines, passed out and fortunately some colleagues rushed me to the hospital, where I was shocked with the paddles. I was transported to Johns Hopkins Hospital for evaluation. Within days, I had a cardiac defibrillator implanted in my chest, with wires into my heart and body cavity to deliver an electric shock should I flip into this dangerous rhythm again.
That was in 1998. I am on my fourth defibrillator; they have a finite battery life and need to be replaced every so often.
I share this story because I soon became aware of the existence of thousands of families that have cardiac arrhythmias that can be passed down from parents (my condition is not heritable fortunately). These dangerous rhythms can lead to sudden cardiac death. I was fortunate enough to bump into someone from the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome Foundation, and that is where I learned about these genetic conditions. I have been an advocate for the SADS Foundation ever since.
You probably have seen this arise on TV news, or read about it in the newspaper. A high school football or basketball player collapses mid-stride on the playing field and dies. This awful tragedy is often followed by the identification of other family members that also have this disease and are at risk. Fortunately, the treatment for those who never had a cardiac event is taking a daily beta-blocker pill. For those who do experience a cardiac event, an implanted cardiac defibrillator is more likely.
There are about 7,000 deaths a year in kids and young adults from these arrhythmia syndromes. Most are preventable if we screen our youth. Well, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Pediatric and Congenital Electrophysiology Society just came out with such a recommendation: all middle school kids, regardless of their athletic status, should be screened for such heart conditions.
This screening is just a few questions about family history concerning frequent fainting by any family member, or early unexplained deaths in the family, like a drowning or single-vehicle crash. If there are any such concerns, then an electrocardiogram is recommended.
I back this recommendation and hope that our middle schools can adopt this policy in the near future. Following these new guidelines will save lives.
The writer is a longtime Ellicott City resident.