Today, My Heart is in Michigan

I grew up in Ohio. I graduated from Ohio State. I met my wife there.  I love the Buckeyes.  However, today, as they hold the funeral service for Ryan Fischer, my heart is in Michigan.  Ryan was Grandville’s hockey team captain and he died from an enlarged heart on the eve of the state championship.

Michigan is no stranger to losing students to heart conditions.  In 2013, it was track runner, Mario Campbell.  In 2012, it was a kindergartner at Field Day.  In 2011, it was high school basketball standout, Wes Leonard, who collapsed and died after making the winning shot.

Leonard’s death received a lot of media attention and Fischer’s is too.  That’s what happens when our most gifted athletes, our children, collapse and die for no apparent reason, from conditions that are detectable and treatable.

Following Wes’ death, this headline read, “Study finds student athlete sudden cardiac deaths like Fennville star Wes Leonard are as rare a deaths from lightening.”  The headline was based on a paper appearing in Circulation, an American Heart Association publication, and was titled Sudden Death in Young Competitive Athletes – Analysis of 1866 deaths in the United States, 1980 – 2006.

According to a cursory Google search, at least four Michigan students have died from sudden cardiac arrest in the last two years.  It is probably more accurate to say that four deaths have been picked up by the media.  So, what is the real number?  How many children die from sudden cardiac arrest?

This lightning analogy appeared in Circulation, a publication of the American Heart Association in 2009.  The death count was rooted in the US National Registry on Sudden Death in Athletes, a creation of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.  This “registry” is based on LexisNexis, Burrelle’s Information Services, Internet searches, reports from various governmental agencies and independent organizations.

I am shocked (no pun intended) that this resource can be identified and accepted as a registry in the medical world.  The term registry connotes official, legitimate, scientific and comprehensive.  At best, these sources offer an unscientific and incomplete glimpse of the picture.  They are better suited for students completing research papers.  To use this “registry” as the basis to influence healthcare policy and debate a standard of care is misleading and reckless.

Case in point.  Nicholas Bennett, a student athlete from Ionia Middle School (also Michigan), died September 25, 2013.  At the time, his obituary was the only record of his passing, and it did not reference sudden cardiac arrest.  It wasn’t until the passing of Ryan Fischer, six months later, that we learned more about Nicholas from this article.  How many more Nicholases are not being counted?

This “registry” suggests that approximately 72 student athletes die nationwide every year.  So, how many student athletes are dying from lightning strikes?

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, seven people died from lightning in the State of Michigan between 2003 – 2012.  To put another way, 0.7 people died each year from lightning.  By the way, all seven were adults.

This debate isn’t about Michigan though.  It is about the United States and this number doesn’t take into account states like Florida and Texas that have many more lightning deaths.

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that 2,000 children die in the U.S. every year from sudden cardiac arrest.  When extrapolated over a fifty-three year period, this number is 106,000.

During this same period (1959 – 2012), the NOAA recorded 4,002 deaths from lightning strikes, and the overwhelming majority of the deaths were adults.

The conditions that cause our children to drop dead are detectable and treatable.  We have a cure . . . it’s called prevention.  While it is tragic to read about the deaths of Wes, Nicholas, Ryan and Mario, the real tragedy lies within a very well respected segment of the medical community that confuses and misguides the public about the incidents of sudden cardiac arrest and death in children.  If we can’t rely on them to help us define the scope of the problem, we’ll never solve the problem, and we’ll continue to bury children like Ryan.