It was not the first time a young, seemingly healthy athlete had succumbed to "sudden death." The American Heart Association estimates the prevalence of such deaths is one in 100,000 to one in 300,000 in high school athletes. Though infrequent, these unexpected fatalities are devastating to families and communities.
Usually, the death is due to a cardiovascular abnormality such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, when the heart muscle becomes inflamed. The abnormalities seem to occur more frequently in men and, particularly, in black men.
These are not the types of problems that come to light in the routine, perfunctory examinations given to high school, college and even professional athletes.
"You just can't put a stethoscope to a kid's heart and ask them to cough if you're trying to screen for sudden death," says Rosser, director of minimally invasive surgery and of the advanced medical technology institute at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. "Kids really need to have echocardiograms and other things, but no one was doing it."
No one was doing it because they thought it was too expensive.
Rosser knew they were wrong. Thanks to his time spent as technical coordinator for the Yale-NASA Commercial Space Center, he knew it could be done and could be done cheaply. Now, with Operation Beating Heart, the organization he has founded, he is taking space-age technology onto the playing field.
"I had been involved with a glimpse of the future that was meant to help take care of astronauts in space, but I felt we could utilize it to take care of people down here today," Rosser says.
So instead of a $250,000 echocardiogram (also known as an EKG or ECG) machine weighing 250 pounds, Rosser enlisted the help of a $25,000, five-pound machine. Then he trained certified athletic trainers to use them. He then added a regular phone line on a laptop computer so the images could be downloaded and read by doctors off site.
In August 2001, Rosser took the system to Savannah State University, a historically black institution in Georgia, to do a test run before football season.
"Everything was an overwhelming success," says Rosser, who was an offensive linesman at the University of Florida. "No longer will people have to come to health care. Health care will come to the people. No longer will we practice a defensive brand of health-care delivery. We will have an offensive strategy to help prevent things from happening, and that is the future of health care."
At Savannah State University, the results were troubling and heartening at the same time. Some 25 percent of the young people who took part in the test had asthma, while only 8 percent had reported that they had asthmatic symptoms. Almost 10 percent had abnormalities on the EKG. Tests also turned up hypertension.
"We found kids with terrible family histories of hypertension playing football. They are genetic time bombs," Rosser says. "Nobody has taken this kind of demographic information into consideration. They're just letting kids play ball."
All the youths who were screened now have a profile so they can be aware of any health concerns and take preemptive action.
"To me, this is on high ground morally and ethically," Rosser says. "Parents send their kids out to participate in sports and they expect them to come back with a broken ankle or hand, but they don't expect them to come back dead."
Operation Beating Heart is now negotiating with the University of Miami to set up on their campus.
"The long-term goal is to have regional Operation Beating Heart centers around the country to work with hospitals and schools to help coordinate and facilitate every child participating in competitive athletics," Rosser says. "This would constitute a baseline safety net to help make sure that children don't come back from the practice field in coffins."
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