Daily Archives: September 22, 2008

Stanford University To Screen Athletes For “Cardiovascular Ailments” As Competitive Sports Place Significant Demands On Cardiac System

“There are 200 sudden cardiovascular deaths a year in young athletes. We would like to see that it doesn’t happen here,” he said. “It is such a paradox, that the kid who is the best physical specimen can die suddenly.”



Stanford searches the world to recruit athletes with heart. On Sunday, it made sure those hearts were healthy.

Hundreds of student-athletes underwent extensive heart checks in the school’s most ambitious effort yet to prevent sudden cardiac death, the leading killer of young American athletes.

Young, strong and fit, athletes from 35 teams seemed to be the picture of health as they awaited electrocardiograms (ECG) and echocardiograms at the Sports Medicine Center of the Arrillaga Center for Sports and Recreation.

But heart ailments can be silent killers, said Stanford’s Dr. Victor Froelicher, lead cardiologist for the Sunday screening.

“There are 200 sudden cardiovascular deaths a year in young athletes. We would like to see that it doesn’t happen here,” he said. “It is such a paradox, that the kid who is the best physical specimen can die suddenly.”

Stanford’s testing is unique among college athletic programs. It is rare even in professional sports leagues; only the National Basketball Association mandates that players undergo both tests.

“Competitive sports place significant demands on the cardiac and metabolic system,” said Gordon Matheson, director for Stanford’s sports medicine.

The $1 million worth of loaned equipment from Stanford Hospital and the university’s Sports Medicine Division, as well as volunteer time of two dozen doctors, nurses and staff, made the effort practical, Froelicher said.

Last year, when Stanford physicians held the first comprehensive ECG screening for student-athletes, the testing identified 60 athletes with issues that prompted closer evaluation with magnetic resonance imaging.


One young woman had surgery and is now healthy. This year, Stanford added the echocardiogram. While the ECG studies electrical impulses in the heart, the echocardiogram images the heart’s structure and motion.

In addition, the Stanford student-athletes filled out a 100-query questionnaire about their health, which helps build a comprehensive health profile. They also undergo the usual battery of health tests.

“We’d usually be sleeping. Or in the library,” said Vickie Fanslow, 21, a lacrosse player who woke at 8:45 a.m. to take the tests. With classes starting Monday, there was still unpacking to do, books to buy — and the favorite Sunday morning pastime, brunch.

“It’s a good thing, in case we have heart problems,” Fanslow said. A biology major, she hoped that all the data would contribute research into a better understanding of athletes’ cardiovascular systems.

“I’m curious about my body,” said teammate Eleanor Foote, 20. “Besides, I had a cough all summer and would like to find out what’s going on. We have all this technology. Why not use it?” she said.

But rower Molly Wachtel, 19, was more skeptical.

“I’m not a big fan of the tests,” she said. A Stanford transfer, while at the University of California-Los Angeles she was misdiagnosed with a genetic, progressive heart condition called Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia after a fainting spell. She had to undergo extensive testing and feared being sidelined. “Sports is your community,” she said.

“We worry about false positives,” Matheson said. “You hate them to stop playing. But if we see something, we know we can follow it. … We screen pregnant women, pilots and police — it makes sense to screen these young people.”

There are many different types of cardiac death. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a structural heart defect, is the most common cause of death in young athletes. It killed Loyola Marymount University basketball star Hank Gathers at 23 and Boston Celtics’ star Reggie Lewis at 27.

Artery problems are another leading source of death. An autopsy of Pete Maravich, the all-time leading NCAA Division I scorer at Louisiana State University who collapsed at age 40, showed that he had been born with a missing left coronary artery.

An assortment of other cardiac problems can also go undetected. U.S. Olympic volleyball star Florence Hyman collapsed during a match at age 31 because of heart failure caused by undiagnosed Marfan’s Syndrome.

“We can’t always detect problems. We can’t eliminate risk. And we’re not saying everybody should be doing this,” Matheson said. “But we can reduce the number of unnecessary deaths.”