By Judy Peterson
Los Gatos Weekly-Times
When 17-year-old Mikey Halpin collapsed at Los Gatos High School on Dec. 2, 2008, it sent shock waves through the community. Everyone, family included, thought the strapping senior was healthy. After all, he had recently passed the physical that was necessary for him to play football.
But Mikey suffered from a hereditary heart condition known as mitral valve prolapse, which proved to be fatal.
Now, his father, Tim Halpin, is working with local hospitals to encourage young athletes to undergo testing for heart anomalies.
“I don’t want other parents to go through the heartache I have — and still have,” Halpin said. “It’s been a year, but I don’t think it ever goes away.” Halpin was on hand Jan. 9 when El Camino Hospital Los Gatos sponsored a free heart screening clinic for young athletes.
“These conditions of heart disease in athletes are more serious because they often die,” Dr. Bing Liem said. “That’s why screening is so important.” Liem, a cardiologist at El Camino who organized the heart-screening clinic, said that the incidence of sudden death among athletes is one in 100,000.
The free tests he performed are relatively simple, but important life-saving analyses. “The first step is a good cardiac history and an EKG — an electrical recording of heart rhythms, which also reflects heart disease,” Liem said. “If we aren’t comfortable with what we see, we may recommend an ultrasound of the heart, which takes a picture of the heart. Other steps may include a stress test or other electrical tests.”
The Jan. 9 clinic was focused solely on taking an athlete’s heart history and providing an EKG. Liem said high school athletes are of particular concern.
“Usually when they reach high school, they become very competitive. They’re going for scholarships and participating in marathons,” he said. So, that is when previously undetected problems may begin to affect otherwise functioning people. “Sudden death is made more common when athletes exert themselves,” Liem said. “Physical activity is part of the risk factor in people born with heart anomalies.”
While Liem singled out strenuous sports such as basketball, football and swimming as being particularly dangerous for young athletes with undetected heart problems, he also said endurance sports like sprinting and extreme jumping can be just as dangerous.
“Over-exertion can trigger sudden death,” he said. He views awareness as key to preventing sudden death from heart disease. “There was a recent publication whereby programs that mandate better screening can reduce the sudden death rate. Some countries that mandate screening found it reduces sudden death rates threefold.” There has been some pushback, Liem said, to making cardiac screening mandatory in the U.S. because of cost and manpower concerns.
“So I just wanted to do it for free to improve awareness,” he said. “Perhaps later it will become something that people embrace.”
That is exactly why Halpin is behind an effort to make cardiac screening mandatory for young athletes in California. He is working with Fresno Assemblyman Mike Villines. “We’re working to submit a bill this year to make it mandatory for kids to be tested for heart defects,” Halpin said.
Halpin is also starting a nonprofit organization in Mikey’s name to raise money to put defibrillators in all schools. In addition, Halpin is working with Good Samaritan Hospital to start a heart-screening program for all Los Gatos High School athletes.
“I would love to see all children tested, whether they’re in sports or not,” Halpin said. “It’s important for the knowledge to get out there that tests are available.”
While Halpin’s focus now is on Los Gatos, he plans to reach out to surrounding communities so that other parents are aware of the risks involved in youth sports.