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Long Island

Death raises concerns for student athletes on LI

Fennville High School's Wes Leonard puts up the

Fennville High School's Wes Leonard puts up the winning shot in a 57-55 win over Bridgman in Fennville, Mich. Leonard collapsed on the court and later died. (March 3, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

The death of a Michigan high school basketball star who collapsed minutes after sinking the winning shot has sparked concern about undetected heart problems among young athletes on Long Island and across the country.

Local high school sports officials and medical experts are calling for more rigorous screening before teens hit the field or court.

New calls for tests

The tragedy has reignited debate over whether physical exams for student athletes should get more sophisticated, using the latest heart-monitoring and diagnostic technology.

Doctors say lives could be saved with common tests like the electrocardiogram, or EKG, which measures heart rhythm, and the echocardiogram, which uses ultrasound to take pictures of the heart.

"No parent wants to be staring down at a pile of dirt, thinking, 'What went wrong?' " said Dr. Sean Levchuck, chief of pediatrics and pediatric cardiology at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn. Levchuck and his colleagues volunteer to screen athletes at local schools.

Critics of mandatory heart screening have cited higher costs and relatively few fatal cases. But Levchuck cited statistics from his professional experience.

Over the past year and a half, out of every 60 students he and fellow volunteers have checked, they'd typically find one or two with potentially serious heart conditions, he said.

John Mankowich, director of athletics for the Jericho school district, said he supports making additional testing a requirement. "If it saves one life," he said, "maybe it's something that should be considered."

An optional measure

In the United States, EKG and echo tests remain largely optional in school programs. On Long Island, student athletes are typically required to pass a preseason physical exam every year.

The school nurse or physician usually conducts the exam, which includes a blood pressure and pulse check, as well as blood and urine tests for protein and sugar levels.

"If there's an alert that comes up for one reason or another, the school physician would send them for a follow-up to their family doctor," said Peter Blieberg, Sachem athletic director. Blieberg said he would endorse a similar mandate to require EKGs if doctors recommended it.

Sudden cardiac death is two to five times more likely to strike young athletes than the general population, experts say, affecting one out of 200,000 high school athletes in the United States each year.

Wes Leonard, the 16-year-old who collapsed on the court Thursday night, died of cardiac arrest brought on by dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition that often strikes suddenly and without warning. Leonard was buried Tuesday.

"It's absolutely silent," said Dr. Frederick Bierman, a pediatric cardiologist and chairman of pediatrics at North Shore-LIJ in Manhasset.

In some cases, he said, there's shortness of breath -- a symptom that's easy to ignore as a normal part of strenuous exercise.

Dr. Alex Vidal of Nassau University Medical Center's new heart failure center said the screening tests would reveal other conditions that have an effect on the electrical system of the heart that predisposes otherwise healthy youth to a higher risk of death.

Vidal said schools should require EKGs before clearing students for sports. The test costs $50 to $100 and is typically covered by insurance, he said.

A study last year by researchers at Stanford University's medical school concluded that the use of electrocardiograms to screen young athletes is "reasonable in cost and effective at saving lives."

Some already screen

In Italy, EKG screenings of all athletes in officially sanctioned sports has been mandatory since 1982. A study showed a nearly 90 percent drop in sudden cardiac deaths since the program began.

Coaches and school athletic staff on Long Island are trained in the use of automated external defibrillators and CPR in the rare case a player has a dangerous attack.

As of 2002, New York State schools are required to have defibrillators in the building and at all sporting events. The mandate, known as "Louis' Law," came two years after Northport lacrosse goalie Louis Acompora took a ball to the chest and died at the age of 14.

With Laura Albanese and Andrew Smith





  • - Cardiomyopathy is a serious disease in which the heart muscle becomes inflamed and doesn't work properly. There may be multiple causes, including viral infections.




the most common kind of cardiomyopathy.


  • - The condition can cause abnormal heart rhythm, heart failure, sudden cardiac arrest, fluid buildup in other parts of the body and blood clots.






  • - Student Athlete Cardiac Screening Program, offered by St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, travels to LI school districts and sponsors public screening.



  • - The next event is May 15 at the DeMatteis Center, 101 Northern Blvd., Greenvale.



  • - For information about the program, call 516-629-2038 or visit and search "cardiac screening."


SOURCE: American Heart Association and Mayo Clinic

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