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EKG screening tests for hidden heart problems in students

Published: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 4:34 p.m. CDT

GRAYSLAKE – Hundreds of students at Grayslake North and Grayslake Central high schools are now more aware of their risk of suffering a sudden cardiac arrest.

Both schools were visited this month by volunteers with the Max Schewitz Foundation, an organization committed to testing and identifying students who are at risk of sudden cardiac death before they suffer heart failure.

The foundation was started after Max Schewitz died at age 20 in 2005 from an undiagnosed cardiac condition, said foundation executive director Mary Beth Schewitz, Max’s mother. Since the foundation was started, more than 17,000 high school students at 13 high schools, mostly in Lake County, have been given EKG tests to find out if they are at risk for heart problems like the one Max suffered from, Schewitz said.

In most cases, the first symptom that otherwise healthy young adults with undetected heart problems experience is cardiac arrest, at which point it’s often too late to save their lives. But a simple EKG test, which takes about five minutes to administer, can identify 40 to 50 percent of those at risk of cardiac arrest, Schewitz said.

That knowledge is welcome news to Schewitz and the other parents who recently volunteered their time testing students at the Grayslake schools.

“If an EKG test can pick up 40 to 50 percent [of those] at risk in advance, we knew we’d be saving lives,” she said.

Parents who volunteer with the Lake Bluff-based foundation are trained on how to administer the EKG tests the day prior to testing dates. Within three hours time, they are able to run the testing stations and take readings that can be checked by cardiologists, said Dr. Eli Lavie, medical director for the foundation and a physician at North Shore Cardiologists of Bannockburn.

Because the Max Schewitz Foundation uses volunteers to administer the EKG tests, it’s able to keep the tests free for students, he said.

Although sudden death resulting from cardiac arrest is rare in otherwise healthy young adults, it does happen about 100 times a year in the United States, Lavie said. However, many people are still unaware of the need for an EKG test.

“People are not aware of it,” he said. “Sudden death is not a common thing. So, it’s not at the top of the list for people to think about.”

“Raising awareness is a huge part of our mission,” Schewitz added.

About 1 or 2 percent of studnets tested will show abnormal EKGs, Schewitz said. Those students  will be given contact information for cardiologists they can follow up with, she said.

Cathy McKenzie is a parent at Grayslake North High School who volunteered during a testing date at the school March 9. She personally relates to the need to test young adults for undetected heart problems.

Two years ago, her son had an accident as a freshman during gym class at Grayslake North. It was only then discovered that he required open heart surgery to address a heart condition, she said.

McKenzie knows her family is fortunate surgery was an option to correct the problem in her son’s heart.

“He would have been one of the kids you hear about on the news,” McKenzie said. “It was just a fluke that they found it.”

Grayslake North sophomore Michael Montalbano said he wanted to get screened for heart problems because of a history of heart trouble in his family. Following the publicity around the school leading up to the screening day, more of his classmates are aware of the need to to get an EKG test, Montalbano said.

“I thought it would be a great idea [to get tested], especially since it’s free,” he said.

To learn more
For more information about the Max Schewitz Foundation, visit www.maxandthewildthings.com. You also can find the group on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ScreensforTeens.

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