Three years ago, San Diego County residents Rhina and Hector Paredes experienced one of the greatest tragedies imaginable to parents—the loss of their son, Eric, at age 15. Since then, they have transformed their loss into an opportunity to help other parents ensure that the same thing never happens in their own families.
Rhina Paredes, a registered nurse at Scripps Green Hospital, had no idea her athletic son had an undetected heart condition until he unexpectedly passed away from sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) in July 2009.
SCA occurs when the heart’s electrical system, which normally keeps heart rate and rhythm running smoothly, malfunctions. As a result, the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating, and blood can no longer reach the brain and other vital organs. Death occurs within minutes unless the patient is resuscitated with a device called an automated external defibrillator (AED), which sends an electric shock to the heart in an effort to “jump-start” it.
SCA is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Most people who are at increased risk for SCA have related conditions such as coronary artery disease, heart attack or a family history of SCA. Other risk factors may include unexplained fainting or lightheadedness, chest pain, shortness of breath or heart palpitations. However, people in seemingly excellent health, including professional athletes, have died from SCA as well.
SCA risk can be assessed through simple tests such as an electrocardiogram (EKG), which measures the heart’s electrical activity, and an echocardiogram, which is essentially an ultrasound of the heart. However, SCA screenings are usually reserved for people who are at high risk for the condition. For parents like the Paredes, who have no reason to suspect their child may be at risk, such screening tests are not easily accessible. Unless a child or teen shows signs and symptoms of a heart problem, insurance companies typically don’t cover screening tests for them. Yet more than 7,000 kids die every year from sudden cardiac arrest.
That’s why the Paredes family established the Eric Paredes Save a Life Foundation. With the goal of preventing SCA in school-age children and adolescents, one of the foundation’s priorities is making an EKG part of any comprehensive sports physical.
In addition to providing free cardiac screenings to San Diego student athletes, the foundation also aims to make AEDs available in middle and high schools.
With the aid of volunteer partners and sponsors including Scripps Health, San Diego Project Heartbeat and Cardiac Science, the Eric Paredes Save a Life Foundation hosted its inaugural screening event at Eric’s school, Steel Canyon High School, in 2010. Nearly 500 student athletes were given EKGs, and those with abnormal results had an echocardiogram on-site. Thanks to the screening, five students were discovered to be at risk for sudden cardiac arrest.
Subsequent screening events have been held at multiple high schools throughout San Diego County. Since its first screening in 2010, more than 4,600 high school students have been screened, and 113 students were identified with heart anomalies – 48 who were at risk of sudden cardiac arrest and three who required heart procedures.
When someone is determined to be at risk for SCA, he or she may be able to prevent it through medication or treatment with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD. A small battery-operated medical device, the ICD is implanted into the body and programmed to identify potentially dangerous problems with the heart’s electrical system and correct them with a shock.
To learn more about the Paredes family’s efforts to prevent SCA, visit www.epsavealife.org
John Rogers, MD, is a cardiologist who specializes treating heart rhythm disorders at Scripps Green Hospital. Dr. Rogers serves as the Medical Director of the Eric Paredes Save a Life Foundation. For a referral to a Scripps physician, call 1-800-SCRIPPS (1-800-727-4777).