Heart Health Hits High School Athletics

The cost of a high school sports injury is most often weighed in time off the field to remedy a break or sprain. But when health concerns are ignored for the sake of field time, the cost can become life-threatening.

Living for Zachary is a nonprofit with a mission to provide preventative heart screenings for student athletes. The organization began in Plano in 2009 after 16-year-old Zachary Schrah collapsed and died during football practice due to Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA). Kim Jones, Schrah’s aunt and director of business for the nonprofit said the family had no warning prior to his collapse.

“Sudden Cardiac Arrest is not the same as a heart attack,” Jones said. “It occurred because of a congenital heart issue we weren’t aware of. It’s something that can’t really be looked out for without a couple of tests.”

According to the American Heart Association, 10,000 young people die from SCA annually. Jones said the solution is heart screenings.

“When you’re getting a Living for Zachary screening, you get an electrocardiogram to check that the blood in the heart is moving how it should,” Jones said. “Also, you’ll get an echocardiogram to check the structural condition of the heart. With these two tests, cardiologists are able to know within 99 percent accuracy if the child is at risk for SCA.”

Gil Garza, athletic director for Dallas ISD, said students aren’t required to get a heart screening to participate in high school athletics, but coaches discuss heart failure prior to each academic year.

“In the required UIL training, coaches are taught and trained how to identify cardiac arrest,” Garza said. “Every one of our schools has a licensed athletic trainer to help facilitate aid in these situations.”

Garza said another way the athletic programs cater to student health is by being strategic about practice and competition times, especially in the summer months.

“We put a lot of emphasis on knowing about what heat can do to a student athlete while they’re exercising,” Garza said. “I think the more that we can educate our kids about this subject, the better head start we have on it.”

Jones said a small number of parents who don’t understand the value of heart screenings would rather sidestep the test in order to keep their child on the field.

“A lot of parents don’t really see the significance of taking their child to get a heart screening and kind of have a misunderstanding of what the heart screening will tell you,” Jones said.

The screenings take place at events primarily at the beginning of each school year, Jones said. While funds are raised to provide these screenings for free, some events require the participants to pay around $55 for the two tests.

“So far we’ve provided over 4,500 heart screenings to the north Texas community,” Jones said. “We’ve also donated about 155 Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) around the state to programs that couldn’t have otherwise afforded one.”

Garza said although screenings aren’t required by the state, he would like to see them become integrated into the health screening process student athletes submit to before each academic year.

Living for Zachary hosts benefits to raise funds for each segment of their nonprofit. Screenings and AED donations are their immediate avenue for outreach, but they also provide academic scholarships and American Heart Association certifications.

“One question I think people are hung up on would be about the cost of the tests. Could everyone afford to get them or could the school districts afford that?” Garza said. “But on the other hand, what’s the price of a life?”

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