PEACE OF MIND
Dr. George Rodgers
When Dr. George Rodgers was a senior in high school, the star athlete of the small private school he attended collapsed in cardiac arrest on the track. “We were all so close. And we were stunned,” Dr. Rodgers recalls as if it happened recently, though it was more than thirty years ago. “At that age, we felt immortal and invincible and the most invincible one of us suddenly died.”
Inspired by this loss and its effect on the school community, Dr. Rodgers became a cardiologist. A pet interest of his was trying to identify congenital heart problems early by developing an efficient screening method. He was especially interested in preventing cardiac arrest due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), the heart condition that took the life of his high school friend. HCM causes a thickening of the heart wall and can lead to obstruction of blood flow, an erratic heartbeat and, in certain conditions, heart failure or sudden cardiac death.
In 2000, Dr. Rodgers helped found Championship Hearts Foundation which provides free heart screenings for student athletes in Central Texas. The goal is to prevent sudden cardiac death, the leading cause of death in young athletes ages 14-18. He continues to serve on the organization’s board, volunteering his time and talent.
Championship Hearts Foundation’s efficient heart screening methods might not have happened if not for a popular 90s diet pill, and the discovery that it caused serious heart valve problems. “Suddenly we had hundreds of patients who wanted to be screened,” he recalls. “We developed a way of quickly screening them at a low cost. We’d screen fifty people in a single evening.”
Another discovery along the way was that the earlier athletes could be screened, the more likely those with heart problems would benefit from the knowledge. “I was asked to screen UT football players,” Dr. Rodgers says. The first year, he identified a key recruit with HTM and informed him it was dangerous for him to play and he needed to quit. The University of Texas has a policy of honoring scholarships for students in this situation. But the player was devastated.
Championship Hearts Foundation focuses on identifying heart problems in middle school, when the heart is fully developed, and students have time to pursue other interests and opportunities if they learn of a serious heart problem.
Championship Hearts Foundation travels around Central Texas providing free screenings that include a 12-lead electrocardiogram (ECG) and a limited echocardiogram (ECHO), tests not included in standards sports physical examinations. The organization’s large-scale heart screening events are usually set up in high school gyms and cafeterias, small medical clinics and hospitals. Booster clubs, local businesses, and hospitals provide support.
Thanks to the generosity of volunteer doctors and technicians, hospital and medical partners, and financial donors, the screenings, which would normally cost about $700 in a cardiologist’s office, are free. Heart screenings are available for athletes, as well as members of the marching band, cheer or drill teams, ages 14 to 18 years old. They take just five minutes.
If an abnormality is found, the volunteer cardiologist that interpreted the tests will recommend a full evaluation by a pediatric cardiologist. Championship Hearts Foundation provides information and assistance to guide parents through the process to receive a full evaluation.
While many similar heart screening organizations around the country were founded by parents and community members, Championship Hearts Foundation is unique in being founded by doctors. That means that in addition to a proven heart screening methodology, the organization has a registry of over 10,000 records of youth health data. Analyzing this information has enabled the organization to identify new parameters for what is normal for adolescent hearts, taking into consideration the gender, height, weight and ethnicity of the patient. This information is input to the computer that helps doctor analyze screening data, providing normal parameters for each particular patient.
“The hope is that we can share these new parameters with other heart screening organizations,” Dr. Rodgers explains. Championship Hearts Foundation has already helped spread its wealth of knowledge by helping found a similar organization in San Antonio, working with the parents of a student athlete who died in his sleep of HCM.
One in 250 high school students has a serious cardiac condition which can cause sudden death—but the risk of sudden cardiac death is much greater in athletes due to their strenuous physical exertion. Dr. Rodgers explains that the mixture of vigorous activity and adrenaline experienced by high-performing athletes is a “perfect storm” for people with certain heart conditions.
“We want people to exercise,” he says. “We just want to make it safe.” Most students who learn they have a heart abnormality are still able to play sports, though some have to switch from basketball for golf. “I tell parents it’s peace of mind.”