Sports Medicine with a Heart

Public healthcare providers and athletes have been under siege lately from just about everybody. 

The medical community has recently been painted as profiteers out of Charles Dickens’ pages, Uriah Heeps out to throw the middle classes into poverty so great they welcome the chance to freeze in the snow.  The move to reduce medical profit for the sake of equity comes at the same time as yet another sports figure, Michael Vick, has tarnished his professional league’s  image.

Vick, you may remember, recently completed his prison sentence and is out of the clink after sidelining himself into the dog house after his own barking mad behavior in staging public dog fights ending in bloody death or slaming dogs to their deaths for fun and profit.

So what could the health plans of managed healthcare people have in common with those in the Dog Killer’s profession, you wonder?

The maligning of these two groups — medical care planners and athletes — make this the perfect time to remember that there are real life heros — altruistic, life-saving physicians and hard-working athletes — who have big hearts.

 Their latest combined pool of fans are sixth graders who attend Houston middle schools in predominately low-income, ethically diverse neighborhoods, the kids docs and jocks have placed at the front of the line in a new heart-monitoring program that might help them live.

The hero list includes (1) Dr. John Higgins, assistant professor of medicine at University of Texas Medical School in Houston and the prime heart behind a new program to check 1,500 middle-school student athletes, and (2) the Houston Rockets, the study’s partner team with Memorial Medical School in Houston. 

 The program is estimated to raise and spend, between May and November, about $600,000 or more to check 1,500 student athletes in Houston-area middle schools to find out if they are at rist for a heart attack. Defibulators were being used for the same purpose in high schools, but Higgins thought that the diagnosis should come before high school, especially for children at risk of developing heart problems.

Houston Rockets are partnering with Memorial Hermann and UT Medical School in Houston to make the program happen within the next year or so, gathering letters of support and money to include as many students as possible.

Figuratively,  Higgins and his team are playing ball with the Rockets, and vice versa, in order to literallysave lives of Houston children. 

They are doing this  through proactively treating what has come to be known to them as the top killer among young athletes.  The program to discover any abnormal heart conditions, Houston Early Age Risk Testing and Screening, goes by the easy-to-remember trademarked acronym HEARTS.

In the first of four phases, Higgins and the Memorial Hermann’s medical team have scheduled visits with students at five Houston Independent School District middle schools thorugh May-December. Participating in what doctors say they hope will only be a first round of the program are:  Burbank, Hogg, Key,, Long and Fleming middle schools.

A Memorial Hermann news release to describe the program warns that results from a study last year in the HeartRhythm Journal showing that “less than one in 10 U.S. student-athletes who suffer sudden cardiac arrest survives.”  

One reason Higgins &  Co. are taking the tests seriously.  

“Sudden cardiac arrest is a condition in which the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating,” Higgins stated in the news release. “When this happens, blood stops flowing to the bain and other vital organs. It usually causes death if it’s not treated within minutes.”

HEARTS ™ is free for volunteer students and includes a cardiovascular exam, a 12-lead electrocardiogram more commonly known as an EKG, echocardiogram (ultrasound), plus a self-administered quesionnaire during the four-step program currently being administered to sixth graders.

“It’s around sixth grade that kids become more active and often get into sports on a more serious level,” Higgins said in the news release. Higgins also is director of exercise physiology at the Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine Institute. If his program uncoveres an abnormal heart rate in his sixth-grade subjects, then they are sent to cardiologist Dr. Gurur Biliciler-Denktas., UT Medical School’s assistnant professor of pediatricts, for treatment at Chidlren’s Memorial Hospital.

So what does all this really mean for Houston’s kids once the study information has been collected?

There are a few predictions — that Houstonians might see mprovements in the screening process or an expansion of the program to test, that they will screen all sixth-grade children in the Houston area, a tentative future program known as HEARTS Over Houston that is now developing a state program.

A woman who is helping to coordinate the program said she believe the study could revolutionize sports medicine in schools, if the state will grant the funding for heart-testing equipment.  

THE HANG-UP with piloting this potentially life-saving program is — Guess.  Go ahead.  Who do you believe are our state’s Charles Dickens’ characters who, in that author’s day, would likely thank God that there are still workhouses where the poor can go, die “and be done with.”  Who could possibly be happy that illnesses were performing their work, reducing the surplus populatons?

Our State Senate, collectively, is that august body that is, collectively, having a heart attack at the idea of purchasing heart-assessing equipment — defibulators — for schools.  They say no, so the program is reaching out to private donors through its partners.

“They don’t get it,” said the coordinator, who asked to remain anonymous in this blog, about the senators. “What the conservative wing fails to understand is that even the lives of low-income children are precious — and may one day impact the country’s futures.”

Director Evelyn Henry of that agency expressed the program’s potential for Houston’s middle schoolers in a program that no longer waits for children to enter high school before they are tested.

“Students who participate will receive a free physical examination, specialized cardiac examinations and any follow-up that’s needed at no cost to students and families,” Henry said in the news release. “We want to provide early screening and help save lives.”

Higgins said he believes schools will see a drop in sudden cardiac death among student athletes,  especially as the pilot program spreads its message and its tests to LBJ Hospital and others.

“With this screening in place, the incidence of sudden cardiac death among Houston school children may be reduced,” Higgins said. “At the end of the pilot program, we will report our findings and work with Memorial Hermann and the Houston Rockets to grow the program and offer screenings to all children in the greater Houston area.”

Houston schools that would like to participate in the study should call Memorial Hermann at 713-222-CARE or visit <a href=””>


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