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Free Teen Heart Screenings Changing SA Lives

We’ve all heard stories about healthy young athletes who trot onto the football field and die from an undetected heart problem. A San Antonio foundation wants to keep those sudden deaths from claiming young lives. Thousands of teens are lining up for tests that could change their lives, or even save their lives.

Credit Kim Stewart
A cryoablation procedure in a cardiac catheterization lab kept Jake Stewart's dreams of playing high school football alive.

Jake Stewart of San Antonio has already had a lot of success on the football field playing for Clark High School. This year, the 17-year-old is heading into his senior year serving as the Cougars quarterback.

At the heart of Jake story is a free screening he attended three years ago, a test that revealed a hidden threat. "I had Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, also called WPW," Jake said.

WPW is a congenital heart problem, an extra electrical path that put Jake at increased risk for cardiac arrest. "My mom freaked out. Yes," Jake remembered.

My mom freaked out ~ Jake Stewart

"It was so shocking. It was so shocking," said Kim Stewart, Jake's mother. It was her idea to take Jake to free screenings offered by AugustHeart, a local non-profit providing the tests in honor of August Koontz, an 18-year-old who died in his sleep from an undetected heart problem.

In July, hundreds of young men and woman ages 14 to 18 lined up for EKGs to test their electrical output. Cardiologist Dr. Nandish Thukral volunteered to read them on site.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
AugustHeart performs free 12-lead EKGs on students who show up for the free screenings.

"They’re having a 12-lead EKG or an electrocardiogram. Essentially that’s a tracing of the electrical system of the heart," Thukral explained.

If the physician suspects a thickening of the muscle or an abnormal heart rhythm, the boys and girls can get an echocardiogram, a sonogram, right then and there.

"We’re looking for any dilatation or thickness of the heart that would put any of these kids at risk for sudden cardiac death," said Derrick Eaton, a cardiac sonographer who also volunteers for AugustHeart.

About one in a hundred teens are sent for observation, further testing, sometimes a procedure or even surgery.

"I think it’s a good opportunity to see how healthy I am," commented Lee High School football defensive lineman Douglas Karam. He said the process was easy and painless. "The nice ladies just ask you to take your shirt off and they put patches on you and then you get your heart screened."

Credit AugustHeart
Official logo of AugustHeart

Mia Gonzalez plays soccer and runs track at St. Anthony. "This is my first time," she said. "My mom thought it was a great opportunity to check my health."

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates 2,000 Americans under 25 die each year  from sudden cardiac arrest. The Operations Director for AugustHeart, Pam Velasco, says with increased participation in sports, the need for widespread screening is greater than ever. "These kids are participating in athletics at a level that they’ve never participated in before," Velasco stressed. "They could have this underlying abnormality that they don’t even know they have."

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Students who have an EKG that gets flagged by a cardiologist reading the tests will receive an echocardiogram as well.

Jake could not be cleared for football until his condition was treated with cryoablation, or freezing, of the electrical pathway in a cardiac catheterization lab. "Once he told me I just realized that the procedure was something that had to be done because I wasn’t going to change my lifestyle," Jake recalled. "I’m so, so thankful I went."

I'm so, so thankful I went ~ Jake Stewart

His mother is grateful that a San Antonio family who suffered such a heartbreaking loss is honoring their son in this way. "It just makes me even more grateful that there are people out there who took something that is just every parent’s worst nightmare and they have turned it into something that has saved so many lives," Stewart said.

The next free teen heart screening will be in October.

To see the heart in action on an echocardiogram, click on the video below.

Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.