The One Shining Moment of March

Published by the Huffington Post

I love this time of year. My colleagues strut around the office pretending to know who is going to win the NCAA Tournament. They spend countless hours on the web studying bracketolgy, only to lose to someone who knows nothing about basketball, but likes the names of some schools more than others. You guys know who you are. Yes, we are in the midst of March Madness.

Despite what the nickname suggests, it isn’t all madness. Some things have become very predictable. You must be at least an eight seed to win. A twelve seed always upsets a five seed. No team has ever gone undefeated and won the tournament. Basketball players are at the greatest risk of sudden cardiac arrest.

It’s true. Heart conditions and sudden cardiac arrest have become just as much a part of the NCAA tournament as Cinderella stories and Big Dances. This year, at least five teams faced this start reality.

Jay Simpson (Purdue) was forced to retire earlier this season due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM).  Justin Moss (Buffalo) was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, but was able to continue playing because he received an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD).  DJ Bowles (Wichita State) collapsed on the basketball court during his freshman year, two years ago, and was forced to retire. DJ actually played along side Carl Hall, another Shocker, diagnosed with a heart condition. Dwayne Polee (San Diego State) was diagnosed with a cardiac arrhythmia earlier this year, but was cleared to return.  Tyler Adams of Georgetown was forced to retire three years ago after discovering a heart condition. He graduates this season.

During this mad month, we are inundated with statistics. However, no one is talking about this one – eight percent of the teams in this year’s tournament could have seen their teammate collapse and die on the court. So why aren’t we hearing more about this threat?

Actually, we finally are. Earlier this month, Dr. Brian Hainline, the first Chief Medical Officer of the NCAA told the world that basketball players, and other high risk athletes, should be required to undergo an EKG exam prior to participating in sports. This is a tremendous development in amateur sport.

For years, professional sports leagues have been checking the hearts of their athletes. Last year, we were reminded about the benefit of this policy. Isaiah Austin (Baylor University) was disqualified from the NBA draft after being diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome. In addition to stories, there is research to show that an EKG, coupled with a physical exam and medical history, is the most effective way to detect heart conditions that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest. They’ve been doing it right for professionally athletes. We are now one step closer to taking care of our student athletes too.

For years, my nonprofit organization, Simon’s Fund, which was founded in memory of my three-month old son, Simon, has provided free heart screenings for students. We find that approximately one out of every 100 students has an undetected heart condition. We are one of many organizations doing this kind of work. Check out Screen Across America to find the others.

In 2013, while Louisville, Michigan, Syracuse and Wichita State were facing off at the Final Four, Simon’s Fund was up the road in Gwinnett County conducting a heart screening with the CardioVascular Group. Earlier that year, two student athletes from Buford, both basketball players, died from sudden cardiac arrest — Jeremy Nelsonand Adam Smith. They will never travel down the road to the Final Four. That’s when we realized the importance of connecting the Final Four to the cardiac safety of our student athletes.

This year, Simon’s Fund will be in Indianapolis with Giving Hearts a Hand, the John Stewart FoundationPlay for Jake Foundation and Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health to provide free heart screenings for high school students in Marion County. Every student who attends the screening at Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet High School will receive a physical exam, EKG and echocardiogram.

If Kentucky goes on to win this year, we will all witness history. It will be the first time that a national champion has gone undefeated in the era of the sixty-four team tournament. However, the one shining moment of this March is clearly Dr. Hanline’s commitment to checking the hearts of our student athletes. Kentucky’s accomplishment will give us much to talk about in the decades to come. Dr. Hainline’s effort will save lives.