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Every student at a historically Black college in Florida can get a free heart screening

Two nonprofits launch initiative designed to combat high rate of sudden cardiac arrest in young people

A new collaborative commitment between nonprofits will provide free advanced heart screenings to students at historically Black colleges and universities in Florida.

Nonprofit managed health care organization CareSource and Who We Play For, a nonprofit working to prevent sudden cardiac death in young people through affordable heart screenings, partnered to launch the initiative in September. Electrocardiogram screenings will take place at the four historically Black universities in Florida, Bethune-Cookman, Edward Waters, Florida A&M and Florida Memorial2, until athletes in all sports, as well as any interested students, have been screened for life-threatening heart conditions.

The plan is to incorporate the program at all 107 HBCUs, said Dr. David Williams, executive vice president and chief medical officer of CareSource.

Williams is an alumnus of two historically Black colleges, Tougaloo College and Jackson State University in Mississippi.

“This is near and dear to me,” he said. “I want to work with Who We Play For to scale this throughout the country.”

Sudden cardiac arrest attracted public attention after two high-profile incidents. Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin‘s heart stopped on Jan. 2 after he was hit in the chest. Basketball player Bronny James, the son of NBA superstar LeBron James who intends to play for USC this season, went into cardiac arrest during a workout in July.

Black male athletes are disproportionately affected by sudden cardiac arrest. According to Dr. Jonathan Drezner, the head of the University of Washington Center for Sports Cardiology in Seattle and a board member for Who We Play For, the risk of sudden cardiac arrest for a Black male Division I NCAA basketball player is 1 in 2,000 per year, which “is not rare.” Overall, 1 in 300 young people have a potentially life-threatening, detectable heart condition, he said.

In acknowledging the gap in resources between HBCUs and other Division I programs, Williams saw an opportunity.

“We understand the importance, especially in the African American community, of sudden cardiac arrest and its effects on athletes,” he said. “ECG screenings improve the detection rate from 5 to 25% up to about 80%. That alone is very significant in screening these student-athletes, and then when some abnormalities are identified, they’ll have the resources to refer them to who they need to see.”

The efforts of Who We Play For are centered on the death of a high school friend, said Evan Ernst, the group’s executive director. In 2007, his teammate Rafe Maccarone went into sudden cardiac arrest during soccer practice.

“What got us into this space for the last 10 to 15 years is the day after Rafe scored the game-winning goal …we went to practice, watched him run his 800, fall to his knees and then onto his back and die of sudden cardiac arrest,” Ernst said.

Lifesaving care was painfully close, Ernst said.

“When [Rafe] went down, we had one kid on the team who knew what to do and started CPR. We had two other buddies run through the high school looking for an AED [automated external defibrillator], which was locked up in the front office behind a bunch of doors,” he said.

“Ten minutes or so later, we were able to get the AED on Rafe, but the way it works with sudden cardiac arrest is if you don’t respond in three or four minutes, the likelihood of survival is disgustingly low.”

Ernst said that during college he learned sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in young athletes, as well as the leading cause of death on school campuses, which ultimately led to the creation of Who We Play For.

Ernst cited another HBCU partnership his group established over the years with former Florida state Rep. Al Lawson, a FAMU alumnus who is listed as the primary sponsor of the Access to AEDs Act. The legislation would expand access to automated external defibrillators, increase CPR training and enable the creation of cardiac emergency response plans in schools nationwide.

“[Lawson] was doing this before it was cool and anyone cared about it. Now it’s being carried on by [U.S. Rep.] Sheila McCormick in Miami, who went to Howard,” Ernst said. “We have Damar Hamlin behind it now, and that’s a bill that will hopefully bring $25 million in funding to public schools to help with AEDs and heart screenings.”

Despite that progress, Ernst said, there’s still more work to be done.

“If you just look at the last 50 years, we haven’t increased the survival rate from sudden cardiac arrest by one percentage point. That makes no sense,” he said. “So our hope with this is that we can help identify the root issue for offsetting cardiac arrest, which in most cases is detectable underlying heart conditions. And you give people a chance to not wait for a three-minute drill to save their lives.”

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.