THE RIGHT CALL
The summer before she started high school, Hayden was a typical “horse girl” who enjoyed Western-style riding and even had her own horse she loved to groom. But one Sunday driving home from their family’s ranch west of Austin, her stepmom and dad, Robin and Rob, were surprised to learn of her new love: tennis.
“I’ve been thinking I want a sport that I can do my whole life,” she told her dad. “I want to do a team sport with my friends.” She had taken tennis lessons when she was little but had never shown any particular interest or ability in the sport. Rob recalls being surprised about her sudden passion, but before he knew it she was playing on the Junior Varsity team at Lake Travis High School.
Hayden had always been athletic, playing soccer and other sports in middle school. She’d developed her love of horses at the summer camp she attended each year in West Texas. Two weeks at the “dude ranch” camp culminated in a rodeo for the parents where Hayden barrel raced and scrambled to grab the ribbon from a calf’s tail.
When Hayden was a sophomore, the coaches at Lake Travis High School required that all student athletes get their hearts screened. So, Rob took Hayden to a screening event offered by Championship Hearts Foundation, a nonprofit organization that 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.
“It was very well organized,” Rob recalls, “and it was free.” After Hayden completed her screening, a doctor pulled them aside to say she would need a follow-up appointment.
“Before then, Hayden would occasionally talk about having a racing heart,” Rob recalls. It had started a few years earlier, but was infrequent, brief and always went away. “It was not a big deal. We probably never even thought to mention it to the pediatrician,” Rob says.
So, they were surprised when the cardiologist told them that Hayden had an extra electrical pathway between the upper and lower chambers of her heart. This was the cause of her racing heart episodes. The extra pathway was present at birth and fairly rare. The condition is called Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome. At the time, the doctor said it was nothing to worry about unless she began to experience more frequent episodes. She would need to be checked annually.
Two years later, Rob and Hayden were in the middle of their epic college tour trip. “I remember we pulled over in a parking lot somewhere in South Carolina,” Rob says. The cardiologist was calling to tell them that a new multi-year study had been done that found that even minor incidents of WPW significantly increased a person’s chance of heart attack or cardiac arrest. “He said we needed to fix it,” Rob recalls. “He explained he could cauterize the extra nerve and it was a procedure he’d done hundreds of times.”
Less than a month later, Hayden had the procedure at the beginning of her senior year. The ablation procedure required just a one-night stay in the hospital. Within a few weeks she was back to her regular activities including tennis team. After the procedure, Hayden was completely cured of the condition and no longer experiences a racing heart.
After high school graduation, Hayden headed to Clemson University in South Carolina. In her free time, she loves rock climbing, running and playing tennis with friends. Over the summer she returned to camp as a counselor, co-leading a cabin of sixteen 13-year-olds, taking them camping in Big Bend and Carlsbad and teaching them horseback riding, as well as archery and riflery.
Looking back, Rob recalls that they probably wouldn’t have had Hayden’s heart screened if the coaches hadn’t required it. “It just wasn’t something that was on our radar,” he says. But now he encourages other parents to get it done.
“Thank God something awful didn’t happen!” he says. “We’re so grateful they caught it and knew how to fix it fairly easily.”
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.
“Everyone should do it—it’s so easy and it takes so little time,” he says. “Why wouldn’t you?”