Heart questions

The Baltimore Sun

By all accounts, Anthony Hobbs couldn't leap through a gym roof, drop three-pointers through the nets like rain or throw down a tomahawk dunk for his Little Rock, Ark., basketball team.

Hobbs, who collapsed near his bench less than four minutes into Wednesday's conference opener for the Parkview Patriots and died an hour later, was the standard-issue 16-year-old high school athlete, a kid apparently talented enough to play in a sport but not quite gifted enough to excel, so his death might pass from our consciousness quickly without causing much of a dent.

But although Hobbs' death might not resonate much beyond his immediate circle of family, friends and schoolmates, the universality of his situation ought to prod school officials and parents into looking a little more closely at the physical condition of our children when we send them off to play.

This is in no way meant to issue recriminations against either the family of Hobbs or his coaches. Hobbs had undergone a physical before the season, coach Al Flanigan told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The physical, Flanigan said, had revealed nothing out of the ordinary, though Hobbs had apparently suffered a seizure in church the year before.

Flanigan said Hobbs - who usually came off the bench but got the start Wednesday against Lake Hamilton because the starter was late arriving to the game - was excited about the chance to start and had shown no signs of illness before his collapse.

Perhaps under the current system, in which kids are cleared to play after taking and passing routine physicals, there was no way to predict what would happen to Hobbs on Wednesday night, and that might be the point: The system needs to change.

An article in last month's Sports Illustrated pointed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) - a genetic disease in which the walls of one ventricle of the heart are enlarged, thus inhibiting the flow of blood into the heart - as a cause in the sudden death of younger athletes. Reportedly, HCM and physical exertion are linked to the deaths of about 25 young athletes each year.

HCM led to the deaths of 23-year-old San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Thomas Herrion and 28-year-old Atlanta Hawks center Jason Collier within two months of each other in 2005. In the SI article, the most detailed to date in a popular publication about the subject, HCM was identified as the most common cause of sudden death of young people, athletic or not, by Dr. Barry Maron, the director of the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Center at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.

Locally, Megan Finn, an Overlea field hockey player, nearly died on the practice field in October 2004, when she suffered a heart incident. Finn was revived by a quick-thinking coach, Jenna Zava, who performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Later, Finn, who had never played sports before, was diagnosed with HCM.

Although HCM, which, according to SI, affects 600,000 Americans and is 20 times more prevalent in this country than Lou Gehrig's disease, affects more and more people each year, it largely goes undetected in the athletic community. That's because electrocardiograms and echocardiograms, which can help to spot the heart abnormalities that are caused by HCM, are not part of the standard athletic physical - largely because, combined, they can cost more than $2,000 per patient.

It might not be feasible to test each of the more than 7 million American high school athletes for HCM, not without Draconian steps such as imposing hefty athletic fees to cover the cost or government subsidies. But as school districts around the country are lining up to take on the cost of testing for steroids, a threat far larger in reputation than reality, finding a way to ensure that kids with HCM are found and cared for seems a more effective use of our time and energy. That's a sentiment the family of Anthony Hobbs would agree with.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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