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Teens at Squalicum High School screened for sudden cardiac arrest

While waiting for their heart screenings on Wednesday, Oct. 8, Squalicum High School sophomores Lizbeth Gonzalez and Karen Hernandez studied a wall of billboards in the gym that pictured teens who died from sudden cardiac arrest.

“They just died all of the sudden, and that could have been prevented,” Gonzalez said.

The Nick of Time Foundation partnered with the Bellingham School District and PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center to offer free heart screenings to an estimated 253 students at Squalicum High School on Wednesday. Young adults ages 14-24, even those not attending the high school, were invited to get an electrocardiogram test that helps detect heart abnormalities leading to sudden cardiac arrest. They also were taught how to perform CPR and use an automated external defibrillator.

Sudden cardiac arrest kills more than 295,000 Americans a year, according to the American Heart Association. Jon Drezner, medical director for Nick of Time and a team physician for the Seattle Seahawks, said between 50 and 80 percent of people that experience sudden cardiac arrest show no prior symptoms. Unless normal heart rhythm is restored within minutes, victims usually die.

Darla Varrenti, executive director of the Nick of Time Foundation, lost her 16-year-old son to sudden cardiac arrest. The foundation was created shortly after, in 2004, and it now holds youth heart screenings around the Puget Sound to raise awareness of the condition.

“We’re letting these kids know that they need to pay attention,” Varrenti said.

Many students at Squalicum who got screened were unaware of sudden cardiac arrest before Wednesday. Gonzalez and Hernandez, who both play soccer, said they never thought about it before. Two other Squalicum students, Ernie Yake and Gabriel Gonzalez, said they only knew about the condition from watching it on TV. They had no idea how prevalent it is.

“I just hope it doesn’t happen to anyone I know,” Yake said.

Sudden cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack. A heart attack is when blood flow to the heart is blocked while the heart still attempts to beat. In a sudden cardiac arrest, the heart stops altogether due to an “electrical” problem in the heart. Drezner said smoking or drinking does not increase the chances of sudden cardiac arrest since the condition is mostly genetic. People exercising are more prone to experience a sudden cardiac arrest, Drezner said.

Those who participated in the screening filled out a medical history form before checking in. They then got their blood pressure checked, learned how to perform CPR and use an automated external defibrillator. Physicians from PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center and the University of Washington listened to students’ hearts and lungs and performed an electrocardiogram test. Some students were then directed to an echocardiogram. If the physicians found any abnormalities, the students would be referred to their family doctor.

Jerry Marschke, executive director of cardiovascular services for PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, said students should be given electrocardiograms during their physical to play high school sports. Some colleges already do this, but the condition is equally prevalent with high schools students.

Electrocardiogram tests are not frequently performed at normal doctor visits. Even if no abnormalities are found in an electrocardiogram test, Drezner said the results are not perfect, as conditions can manifest themselves in the future. He recommends that youths get an electrocardiogram test every two years.

But detecting heart issues leading to sudden cardiac arrest requires more than just electrocardiogram tests, Drezner said.

“I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, ‘We think ECG should be everywhere,’” Drezner said. Physicians also need to be better trained to detect signs of sudden cardiac arrest, he said.

The event on Wednesday was a pilot for other potential events to raise awareness for sudden cardiac arrest, said Steve Morse, director of teaching and learning for the Bellingham School District. The district hopes to incorporate sudden cardiac awareness in other high schools, though they do not have anything planned yet. Morse said the district looks forward to working with local physicians and the Nick of Time foundation in the future.

“This is a good first step,” Morse said.

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