Heart screenings program catching on in high schools

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Alvaro Alvarez, right, a paramedic with East Baton Rouge EMS, takes an electrocardiogram for Juntae Gordon, left, a forward on the Scotlandville High basketball team. The Jump Start Your Heart group performed free heart screenings for Scotlandville High athletes Thursday.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Alvaro Alvarez, right, a paramedic with East Baton Rouge EMS, takes an electrocardiogram for Juntae Gordon, left, a forward on the Scotlandville High basketball team. The Jump Start Your Heart group performed free heart screenings for Scotlandville High athletes Thursday.

Scotlandville High Athletic Director Latoshia Clay smiled but also fought back a few tears while greeting her school’s athletes as they arrived to undergo cardiac screenings.

“All day, I’ve been thinking about Shannon,” Clay lamented. “I still think about her. I wonder how things would have been different if she had been screened. Having a program like this is a good thing. It might save somebody’s life.”

Clay was the girls basketball coach at Scotlandville in 2008 when Shannon Veal, the star for rival Glen Oaks High, died of a congenital heart defect, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, during a regional-round playoff game against Helen Cox.

The story made national news. Veal, then a junior, was becoming a high-profile recruit. Thursday’s free-of-charge screenings for Scotlandville athletes were conducted by Jump Start Your Heart, Inc., a group started by local cardiologist Dr. Steven Kelley and his wife, Danielle, in 2008 after Veal’s death.

Scotlandville was the eighth school screened by Jump Start this summer. Glen Oaks, Baker, Brusly, McKinley, Madison Prep, Central and Parkview Baptist were the others. The screening was part of Mayor Kip Holden’s Healthy BR program and included two Baton Rouge Children’s Health Project Mobile Medical units from Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center for the first time this year.

East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Medical Service paramedics and volunteer technicians and nurses performed echocardiograms, an ultrasound of the heart, along with electrocardiograms on students-athletes who registered with the program and filled out a medical history.

The connection for the Kelleys also is Veal, who along with Tulane player Whitney Bibbins played on a boys basketball team with their son, Kaylin Johnson, an ex-Parkview Baptist player and then a Samford player.

“What happened with Shannon really hit us hard,” Danielle Kelley said. “That’s how Jump Start got started.”

Dr. Steven Kelley said the tests performed Thursday typically would cost between $400 to $500 per athlete. Dr. Kelley said cost is one of the reasons high schools and most colleges don’t do them.

“The idea has been to grow this a little every year,” Dr. Kelley said. “We’ve been able to do that with fundraisers and city support. It’s gotten bigger and bigger. And all the work done is by volunteers.

“More and more physicians and groups are stepping up and doing these screenings. I’d like to see if we can get on the same page and work together so we can have strength in numbers and serve even more children in the Baton Rouge area.

“I’d tell anybody who is reluctant to have their child screened not to hesitate. These kids are young and healthy. But there are going to be some kids out there who have an underlying cardiac condition that can’t be detected with a general physical exam. Their first symptom could be sudden cardiac death. That’s what we’re trying to prevent.”

Paramedic Otha Henry added, “People don’t understand that heart disease doesn’t just start with the elderly. It catches teenagers and babies. Doing this is a way to catch or detect a problem. We don’t want another tragedy like in 2008 or the one that happened last summer.”

Henry referenced the death of Dutchtown High freshman-to-be Burke Cobb, who died of an undiagnosed heart ailment after completing a summer football workout, a year ago. The Cobb family has started their own Living4Burke Foundation designed to provide cardiac screenings and to provide education about sudden cardiac death among children and teens.

Danielle Kelley said the work of Jump Start, the Cobb Family and other Baton Rouge-based physicians is crucial. She said student-athletes should be screened at least once during their high school years, noting screenings every other year would be ideal.

“We work with a lot of high school students and know that everybody is eager to get out on the court or field,” said registered nurse Shelly Dubriel of the mobile health unit. “They don’t always get a full physical because insurance usually doesn’t cover screenings for children. We’re out here to help make sure their (athletes) hearts can withstand everything they’ll encounter.”

Scotlandville defensive lineman Deldrick Canty said the exam will give his family peace of mind.

“This is for my own good, to make sure I’m healthy,” Canty said. “I’ve thought about it a lot because my mom has a heart condition. She always tells me to take care of myself and eat right. She’s very happy about it (screening).”

“I know the importance of my heart health,” girls basketball player Ky’Rian Wallace said. “There was nothing to be scared about with the tests. It was great.”