It was the summer before Zachary’s freshman year of high school and his mom Lisa Kattawar was busy checking things off her list. At her son’s annual wellness check the pediatrician handed her a flier for Championship Hearts Foundation and recommended a heart screening. The nonprofit organization 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.
“Great, I’ll do that!” Lisa told the doctor, but life was busy. There were Zachary’s soccer practices and his games and her daughter’s activities as well. Her husband Greg is a software developer and entrepreneur with a demanding schedule. Plus, she wasn’t worried about heart problems. Their family had no history of heart conditions and everything was going so well. The flier sat on her desk at home for a year.
The following summer her daughter was entering high school. Back at the pediatrician’s office for annual physical exams, Lisa learned that her daughter was now old enough to get her heart screened, too. Lisa dutifully got another flier and committed to take both kids to get screened as soon as possible.
But before they left that appointment, the pediatrician had some unexpected news. When she listened to Zachary’s heart she heard a murmur. They would need to see a pediatric cardiologist to learn if it was anything to be concerned about. Usually it takes weeks to get an appointment but as it turned out, the cardiologist group was offering heart screenings for student athletes that very week.
“I firmly believed it was nothing,” Lisa recalls. Zachary was 16 and had always been healthy and strong. A dedicated student, he was also played hard on the soccer field. Lisa recalls they did an electrocardiogram (EKG) first, and then the echocardiogram (echo), which uses ultrasound to allow a doctor to examine the heart’s structure.
“I’m still thinking they are going to sign his form and we’ll be on our way,” Lisa recalls. Instead, the doctor delivered some surprising news. Zachary had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). She knew how serious this condition was because her closest friend from high school had suddenly lost her 39-year old sister to HCM. 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.
“I was shocked,” Lisa says. “I knew there are typically no symptoms and it could result in sudden cardiac arrest and death.” She also knew that Zachary’s hard-working attitude meant his work-outs were very strenuous. “I was so thankful he was diagnosed because he could have easily been one of those children who collapses on the field . . .” she adds, her voice trailing off.
Zachary was no longer able to play soccer. So, the very next day his dad went out and bought two sets of golf clubs, one for each of them. Both were absolute beginners. They started taking lessons and golfed nearly every day together through Zachary’s high school years. At the time when most teens are rebelling against their parents, Zachary and his father developed a special bond, spending hours together perfecting their swings.
In addition to no longer pushing the limits of his exertion, Zachary was immediately put on beta blockers to slow his heart rate. During his senior year of high school, he had a couple of fainting episodes and was hospitalized. A stress test revealed that the medication dosage would need to be increased, but to do so would be risky without a pacemaker. Zachary had surgery to implant a pacemaker/defibrillator during May of his senior year. It wasn’t how he planned to celebrate graduation, but he managed to attend prom, finish finals and even squeeze in a trip.
After graduation, Zachary headed to the University of Texas at Austin. He lived in the dorm and rode his bike to class, enjoying a perfectly normal college experience. With one exception. Near his bed was a device that picked up readings from his pacemaker which were reviewed by the cardiologist.
“After Zachary was diagnosed, I finally went to Championship Hearts Foundation,” Lisa recalls. I told them my son has HCM and I wanted to volunteer. That’s when she joined the board of directors. “The group of people at Championship Hearts Foundation are fabulous and care about the mission so much,” she says.
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.
“I felt really guilty for not taking my son to get screened for a year while I had the flier on my desk,” she says. “Never in a million years did I think Zachary had this condition. I was busy, but everyone’s busy.
What is the one thing she’d tell other busy parents? Just make time to do it.
“I couldn’t live with something happening to my son and knowing I could have had him screened and prevented it.”
But many parents of student athletes don’t even know about the importance of getting their child’s heart screened. “None of my friends’ pediatricians told them to get their children screened,” she says. In fact, most parents learn about Championship Hearts Foundation from their school or from other parents. “I want to make more people aware.”
Recently, Zachary graduated from UT with a major in computer science. Just weeks after getting his degree, he started his first “real” job at a local software company where he’s interned during past summers.
“I honestly feel like learning about Zachary’s heart was a blessing in disguise,” Lisa says. “He’s going to live a completely normal life. And he and his dad have developed a great relationship through golfing together. That’s something they’ll always share.”