The Lesson of Isaiah Austin

As kids, how many of you dreamed of making the winning shot, throwing the winning touchdown or hitting the winning homerun? Isaiah Austin, big man for the Baylor Bears did that already. He just finished up his collegiate career and was about to check off another dream – getting drafted to play in the NBA. However, that dream ended with a diagnoses of Marfan Syndrome, a genetic cardiac condition that can lead to sudden cardiac death.

Most people were probably unfamiliar with Marfan Syndrome until reading about Isaiah’s story. Similarly, most are unaware that heart conditions, like this one, are responsible for the deaths of thousands of children every year.  The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that number to be around 2,000. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) recently created a sudden death in the youth registry to ascertain the real number.

After being forced to forfeit an NBA career, Isaiah will likely engage in some soul searching. As responsible parents, coaches, nurses and doctors, we should too. What can we be doing to detect these conditions and protect the health and safety of our student athletes?

Right now in this country, most of our children receive a physical before playing sports. This consists of a physical exam, medical/family history and a listen to the heart.

But is this really enough? How many physicals did Isaiah have throughout his scholastic career? How many times did a physician listen to his heart? That standard of care failed Isaiah. His potentially-fatal heart condition wasn’t detected until he received an ECG exam.

Fortunately for him, the NBA requires more. The League provides cardiac examinations for all players. This exam probably saved his life, as it did for several other NBA players like Jeff Green, Ronny Turiaf, LeMarcus Aldridge, to name a few.

It’s not that the NBA knows more than we do. We have access to the same science. Several recent studies show that adding an ECG exam to the physical and medical history is the best way to detect potentially-fatal heart conditions.

Last year, 2,471 NCAA athletes received an ECG exam with their standard pre-participation sports physical. Seven students were diagnosed with serious heart conditions, yet only two of them had an abnormal history and/or physical exam. In other words, 71% of these students were in the same boat as Isaiah. The exam wasn’t enough. The ECG exam discovered their potentially-fatal heart condition.

Fortunately, Isaiah’s story didn’t end in tragedy. He didn’t collapse and die. But should our kids have to make it to the doorstep of the NBA to receive this standard of care?

The ECG exam is cheap, non-invasive and effective. So, even though your kid may not realize the dream of becoming an NBA player, shouldn’t we at least care for him/her like one?