Doctor: Test student athletes’ hearts

Ryan Fischer

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A cardiologist says the sudden death of Grandville high school hockey captain Ryan Fischer could have been prevented with a test that takes minutes.

Fischer, 17, died in his sleep Friday morning of complications due to an enlarged heart. He was a captain of Grandville’s hockey and football teams and a 4.0 student in the National Honor Society. He had been accepted into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Dr. Daniel West, a Muskegon cardiologist who has tested the hearts of high school athletes for two years, said he hopes Fischer’s death will prompt parents to have their young athletes tested for heart conditions.

“My hope is that this will renew concern because those kids are out there,” West said. “Frankly, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. This is a relatively infrequent condition.”

West is a cardiologist at Mercy Health Muskegon and West Shore Cardiology, which set up a free screening program two years ago in Muskegon for high school athletes from all over West Michigan.

During its first year — after the death of Fennville high school basketball star Wes Leonard, who also suffered from an enlarged heart — more than 1,000 kids went through the testing.

Four were found to have serious but treatable health conditions, West said.

“The next year, without the story of Wes Leonard in the news, people kind of lost interest to some extent,” West said. “Parents thought my child has been screened once, they don’t need to be screened again.”

Last year, even after the program was opened to all high school students, the number of students tested decreased to about 500.

“We cast a broader net, but because the public wasn’t as concerned about it as they had been the year before, our numbers went down significantly,” West said.

While Leonard and Fischer both suffered from enlarged hearts, doctors say their conditions were different. West said Leonard’s condition would have been difficult to detect.

But Fischer suffered from thickening of the heart muscles, which West said is often more easy to detect and affects about 1 in 500 people, though it isn’t always fatal.

“If the reports are accurate, he has a condition that we are best set up to detect in our screening program,” West said. “With the combination of EKG and echocardiogram, it’s highly likely — more than 80% likely — we would have detected that syndrome,” West said.

The screening includes a medical history, blood pressure test, an EKG and, if necessary, an echocardiogram.

There has been debate among the medical profession about whether heart testing is the right tool to protect student athletes’ health. Some doctors say the tests aren’t really able to predict the likelihood of a sudden cardiac arrest and that they can sometimes show incorrect results.

But West recommends high school students get tested every year, because conditions can develop with age. The testing is done at Mercy Health Muskegon usually in June, though no dates have been set for this year.



Mercy Health High School Student Heart Screenings


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