At the tender age of 15, Isabella has something to prove.
A talented swimmer who excels at freestyle and back stroke, she helped her team at Dripping Springs High School win the State title and was the only freshman at her school to advance individually to state competition and swim in the finals. A major accomplishment, it was amplified by the fact that earlier in the season she’d been grounded from swimming for two months on her doctor’s orders.
The summer before Isabella started high school, her mother, Karen, noticed an email about free heart screenings for student athletes. She took the information seriously. Karen’s younger brother, a former University of Texas football player, had recently learned he had a heart problem. Coincidentally, her elderly mother and uncle also had recently had heart trouble.
“With all of that in my head,” Karen recalls, “I thought: Why would we not do this?”
They traveled to a high school near Bastrop where Championship Hearts Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was providing 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.
“I fully expected nothing,” Karen says of her daughter Isabella, the older of two girls. “She had no symptoms.”
First, the technician performed an electrocardiogram (EKG), which measures the heart's electrical activity, then an echocardiogram (echo), or cardiac ultrasound. The tests showed a consistently abnormal rhythm. Karen previously worked in exercise physiology, so she knew what a normal EKG looked like. The cardiologist showed her the report, saying, ‘See those two lines? They’re not supposed to be far apart like that.’”
The doctor explained that Isabella had one of two conditions—one was serious and the other was easily curable. They’d need to visit a pediatric cardiologist to find out which heart irregularity Isabella had.
“What about swimming?” Isabella asked from the exam table, tears welling up. She was excited to start high school in just a few weeks and compete with the team. She was told she’d need to take a break just in case her heart problem was dangerous.
A few weeks later, the cardiologist confirmed that Isabella had an extra electrical pathway between the upper and lower chambers of her heart. The extra pathway was present at birth and was responsible for her heart’s consistently irregular rhythm. The condition is called Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome. To further confirm it, Isabella wore a heart monitor for 24 hours. While some people with WPW experience a racing heart, she had no symptoms even when she was doing 2-hour swim practices. Research has shown that even minor incidents of WPW significantly increased a person’s chance of heart attack or cardiac arrest.
Isabella was grounded and would miss her first high school swim season. “It was hard not getting to swim or exercise,” Isabella recalls. “I didn’t know what to do with myself.” Isabella found it difficult to talk to her friends about. It felt weird to look and feel fine but be planning for heart surgery.
Thankfully, the cure was straightforward. The cardiologist would cauterize the extra nerve and Isabella would be cured for life. She would need to wait until her incisions would heal but after that she could swim.
Except that it didn’t happen exactly that way. When the cardiologist went in to cauterize the extra nerve, he did not observe Isabella’s well-documented abnormal rhythm. Instead, he found a normal rhythm. Occasionally, the extra nerve is dislodged by just attempting to cauterize it. To be sure, a few weeks later he had Isabella come in for a maximum treadmill test which she passed easily. She was cured.
Finally, Isabella was allowed to get back in the water.
When Isabella is not in the pool, she enjoys volunteering with her mom and sister at a local animal shelter. Another recent challenge she overcame was her dad’s resistance to getting a second dog, a sweet hound mutt the girls fell in love with at the shelter. The family now includes Moyo, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, and Nala, the hound. Isabella hopes to go to college out of state but hasn’t decided if she’ll swim at the college level. She hopes to become a wildlife biologist.
“After we found out about Isabella, I told everybody I knew about Championship Hearts Foundation,” Karen says. Her younger daughter Sophia plays soccer and Karen spread the news to the other soccer moms. Sophia was also tested and does not have the condition.
“It’s a free screening!” Karen says with amazement. “You’re getting tests that cost $700 or more. Why wouldn’t everybody do this just to have a base line?”
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.
When the swim season ended, Isabella was honored with the Perseverance Award by the coach of the national development team she also swims with. Despite the challenges, it ended up being a good year. A personal best.