JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As part of Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Month, News Channel 11 sat down with local cardiologist Dr. Jeffrey Schoondyke to better understand the condition that can completely blindside families.
“The key feature in Sudden Cardiac Death is usually the heart becomes involved in a very dangerous arrhythmia,” Schoondyke said. “You’ve heard of people that walk down the street and just flop over, that’s because the heart gets out of rhythm so fast and [in] such a chaotic fashion that it doesn’t pump blood.”
Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA), otherwise known as Sudden Cardiac Death, occurs for a variety of reasons. In younger populations, one of the most common causes is a gene that leads to a heart with thicker walls. That kind of condition rarely makes itself known until it’s too late.
“That predisposes young people, especially athletes, to that kind of arrhythmia,” Schoondyke said. “And ultimately unfortunately resulting in death.”
Earlier this year, local 17-year-old Brodie Livesay died after suffering a sudden cardiac arrest. A prominent football player at Science Hill High School and otherwise healthy child, Brodie’s parents had no reason to expect his passing.
“If you look at the young population, there’s a specific heart condition that’s most classically associated with this, and we call it hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, which is basically a thickened heart condition,” Dr. Schoondyke said. “And that’s a genetic condition that runs about 1-3% of the population.”
Those that make up that at-risk percentage usually find out about it after it nearly kills them.
“A lot of people have these either weakened heart conditions or thickened heart conditions,” Schoondyke said. “And they’re completely unaware of it. And it’s a very easy test to diagnose this.”
One tool to catch some of SCA’s underlying causes is an echocardiogram: a relatively quick and non-invasive ultrasound of one’s heart. If you have any family history of heart issues — especially in the young — Dr. Schoondyke wholeheartedly recommended scheduling one.
“The numbers are low,” Schoondyke said. “But I always say the numbers are low unless it’s you.”
In terms of wide-spread testing, Schoondyke said there isn’t much data that supports an echocardiogram for every healthy person. In his personal opinion, however, Schoondyke said administering the test can give valuable peace of mind.
“For a local area like ours, it’s a very reasonable thing to do,” Schoondyke said about testing young athletes. “Cost-effectiveness is one thing, and I completely understand that. But when we have a young person like Mr. Livesay, this was completely preventable.”
As a standard policy, Schoondyke said his practice screens new patients for heart conditions free of charge. His office also pairs with local sports programs like Science Hill’s to spot potential risks.
If a risk factor for SCA is discovered in a person, Schoondyke said there are several methods to make sure they can live a healthy life. Since physical activity can set off SCA in those at risk, diagnosed athletes would likely be required to stop playing.
“At this point there is no promising way to predict or identify not only who will have it,” Schoondyke said. “But more importantly who will have an event from it.”
A big part of preventing the death of someone who does suffer a sudden cardiac arrest, Schoondyke said, is a quick response. Anyone who faints or passes out needs to be treated as if it’s a heart issue until you know it’s not.
“Anytime you have someone that’s unconscious, you always assume that it’s a cardiac event,” Schoondyke said. “Because that is the quickest, most reversible cause.”
Getting an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) connected to an unconscious person is step one, he said, because the machine can determine if a shock could save their life or if they’re experiencing something less urgent. If an AED isn’t available, CPR and 911 are your next best bet.