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Hidden heart defects a silent killer

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Karie Salazar looks at a rock on the campus of UNLV that was painted in memory of her son Karie Salazar looks at a rock on the campus of UNLV that was painted in memory of her son
A plaque in the UNLV Tonopah Complex honors Race Salazar, who died suddenly February, 2010 A plaque in the UNLV Tonopah Complex honors Race Salazar, who died suddenly February, 2010
A five-minute EKG exam performed on a student athlete at Touro University A five-minute EKG exam performed on a student athlete at Touro University
An EKG may spot potentially fatal heart rhythms An EKG may spot potentially fatal heart rhythms
A physician reviews EKG results with a student A physician reviews EKG results with a student

Your child's heart could be a ticking bomb, all because of a hidden heart defect that a routine physical might not catch.

In the winter of 2010, 19-year-old Race Salazar was an up-and-coming architecture major at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

He was a stand-out student from Folsom, California, an avid athlete, and musician. Las Vegas was the place where he wanted to be.

"This is where he decided to come, and quickly made it his home," said Karie Salazar, Race's mother.

Las Vegas was Race's home for a year and a half, but for Race's mother, the night of February 19, 2010 is the night everything changed.

"He, uh, suffered a life-ending cardiac arrhythmia," Salazar said. "He went to sleep and never woke up."

UNLV Resident Life Coordinator Stan Dura was the one who had to make the call to Karie.

"It was just something you can't really prepare for, no matter how much you think you are," Dura said.

Sudden cardiac arrest happens when the electrical signals of the heart go haywire. Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS) is a term used to describe cardiac arrest that is brought on by an irregular heart rhythm and no structural defect - which was the case with Race Salazar.

According to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, it is estimated that every three days, a young competitive athlete suffers from sudden cardiac arrest, and 5,000-7,000 youth in the United States die from sudden cardiac arrest each year.

Link: More statistics on sudden cardiac arrest

"There are a number of disorders that can cause sudden death, and some of them are very treatable," said Vincent Thomas, MD, a pediatric cardiologist and electrophysiologist at Children's Heart Center Nevada.

Dr. Thomas is also a consultant for the Clark County School District, which mandates every high school be equipped with an Automated External Defibrillator - a device that can shock a failing heart back into a normal rhythm.

Link: CCSD defibrillator policy

"It's one of the things that Nevada leads the nation on, which is very impressive," Thomas said.

While death is possible, many doctors believe that a hidden heart condition can be spotted long before it is a critical situation.

At Touro University in Henderson, student doctors are taking the annual physical one step further.

"Students are falling over from heart attacks, (parents) want to know if my son or daughter's going to be affected," said Ronald Hedger, DO.

A five-minute electrocardiogram (EKG) offered for free at the Touro clinic, examines the heart rhythm and may point out any cause for concern.

"When you're talking about 14-year olds, 16-year olds, 18-year-olds who are in the prime of their life and trying to become athletic, and to pick those (defects) up before it happens, is a big thing," Hedger said.

Dr. Hedger leads a research project that has so far offered more than 250 screenings. Thus far, 8 students showed an abnormality, and 3 were at significant risk for sudden cardiac arrest.

"Many times these students would die unnecessarily, and now they can be saved," said Hedger.

See video on right to view treatment using an implantable defibrillator.

Even so, the EKG exam is controversial because it may offer false hope, and false positives.

"You could have a structurally normal heart, you could have no genetic problems… none of the major causes that result in sudden death, and still die from a sudden event," Thomas said.

One way this can happen is a condition called Commotio Cordis – an impact to the chest at a precise moment that can send the heart into a fatal rhythm.

In Clark County, automatic defibrillators are made available to teams for after school sports, but Thomas said coaches and teams are not required to have the device present at an event.

"We understand that parents are going to come in and be concerned about it, but what I think people have to realize is that those events are few and far between," said Thomas.

And, while Touro University offers the exams free of charge, most physicians will not - and may not offer the option at all.

"It's not that it can't be done," Thomas explains. "It's just that we're not quite sure if, one: the screening is the right thing to do. And two: how do we logistically do it?"

The reason is that the equipment is expensive and is not always available. More often than not, the tests are clean and students are given a clean bill of health.

Still, for many adolescents, it is easy to feel invincible. Kieran Eissler, a junior at Coronado High School knows a few teammates and friends who feel that way.

Eissler said, "Some of the kids on the team tell me stories and all this stuff, and I'm like aren't you worried? Shouldn't you be seeing your doctor?"

Regardless of controversy, it is one test that Salazar wishes she would have sought out for her son.

"Race had no symptoms, no warning signs," she said. "We had no idea that this was something he was genetically disposed to."

It was only after his death, that Salazar found out Race likely had a defect called "Long QT Syndrome." Since then, Salazar's relatives have been tested, and for those who knew him, it has been a wake-up call.

"I can't imagine what Karie went through, and I hope and pray that I never have to go through that," said Dura, who has a daughter.

"It's just really sad to see all of the things that could've been," said Salazar.

Dr. Vincent Thomas is creating a foundation to combat sudden cardiac arrest in children, called the CARDS foundation. CARDS stands for CPR, Awareness, Rapid Defibrillation in Schools. If you are interested in participating or have general questions, send an e-mail to: cardsfoundation@gmail.com.

"I am hopeful that by having an organized approach to this, we can limit and possibly eliminate sudden cardiac death, and have more survivors," Dr. Thomas said.

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