MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Football season in the Mitchell household used to be a joyous time.
The house would buzz with activity and sports-talk from September to February as Chris, Shantell and their son Dwayne each donned a different jersey and bet on whose team was going to win.
This year, it’s quiet. Chris and Shantell lost their 19-year-old son Dwayne in March to complications from a heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Dwayne, a healthy, athletic high school senior, suffered sudden cardiac arrest and collapsed at his grandmother’s house in May 2015, going into a coma two weeks before graduation.
Dwayne had played football and basketball since he was 11, and there had never been any indication that something was wrong with his heart. He had gotten regular physicals, but he had never undergone a simple heart screening known as an electrocardiogram, or EKG, which would have detected his irregular heartbeat.
Now, the Mitchells are on a mission to make sure other families don’t suffer the same heartbreak. Chris, a Miami Beach police detective, and Shantell, a Miami Beach police officer, want the Miami-Dade school district to make EKG screenings a mandatory part of the physicals students get to participate in school sports. They are hoping all parents will take their children to get the screening, which is offered for free by Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and a few other hospitals around the county.
Heart conditions like Wolff-Parkinson-White that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest in children are relatively uncommon. Last year the Heart Program at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, which provides the free EKG screenings, examined 3,771 children. Only 34 had abnormal EKG results. But children who do have abnormalities may not experience any symptoms until it’s too late, said Dr. John Rhodes, the director of the Heart Program.
“The first clinical symptom could be collapse and an injury to the brain or maybe death,” Rhodes said. “We’re trying to pick those up before they ever have that event.”
The chance of sudden cardiac arrest in children with heart conditions is greater for young athletes, who run the risk of collapsing when their heart rate speeds up on the field. Although Wolff-Parkinson-White, a condition in which the heart has an extra electrical pathway that can cause periods of rapid heart rate, and other heart problems that can cause sudden cardiac arrest are largely treatable, parents often don’t take their children to get screened because they don’t know about the risks.
The Heart Program has been offering the free screenings since 2011 and also educates athletic directors, coaches and teachers about heart disorders so they can encourage students to get an EKG.
“I think it’s been very helpful to a lot of people, not just ones who have an abnormality, but it’s very reassuring to parents,” Rhodes said. “The psychological benefit on parents who have to watch their child play sports and wonder that maybe there might be something wrong with them, it’s tremendous.”
Roxana Santos took her 13-year-old son Francisco to get an EKG in June before enrolling him in a summer basketball camp and expected just that – reassurance that everything was fine.
Instead, the EKG revealed abnormalities in Francisco’s heartbeat and further testing found a large hole in the wall that separates the upper chambers of his heart, a condition known as an Atrial Septal Defect.
Francisco underwent open-heart surgery in early July and is now fully recovered. He wants to run cross country and play baseball this year, so Santos has signed him up for both. She only wishes her son’s condition had been detected earlier and could have been fixed when he was a baby, which would have required a less invasive procedure.
“I think it should be a mandatory thing across the board for all pediatricians,” Santos said. “Even if your child is healthy, do it. (Francisco) is a prime example of being a healthy, healthy, healthy athletic child, and look.”
Experts disagree about whether every child should get an EKG. The American Heart Association does not recommend that all children get the screening, citing the burden on the health care system and the potential for false positives.
Children and athletes tend to have different EKG results than sedentary adults, so for parents who decide to have their children screened, it is important to find cardiologists who know how to correctly interpret results for children, said Dr. Jeffrey Lin, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.
Lin recommends EKG screenings for children who play sports or are very active, and for any child with a family history of heart problems.
“I do think there is a role for it as long as you’re providing good interpretation,” Lin said. “It’s difficult to say everyone in U.S. should get an EKG screening.”
After everything they have gone through, Chris and Shantell encourage everyone they meet to get the screening. They have started a foundation called the Dwayne Have a Heart Foundation to raise public awareness. This summer, the Mitchells met with Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who gave them a plaque with Dwayne’s high school diploma, and they are hoping to speak at an upcoming School Board meeting to make EKGs a requirement for student athletes.
“If we can help out another family from going down this road of destruction and hurt and pain just by taking five minutes out of your time and getting an EKG screening done on your loved one, (it’s worth it),” Chris Mitchell said.
Dwayne was in a coma for almost a year before he died in March, and the family had to put him in a neural facility in Atlanta because there were no local facilities that could accommodate him. Even so, Dwayne’s friends from G. Holmes Braddock High School in West Kendall made the trek to Georgia, where they celebrated Dwayne’s birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas. And, of course, Chris and Shantell watched football games at Dwayne’s bedside.
“Prior to this incident we were a normal family,” said Shantell Mitchell, Dwayne’s stepmother. “I look back sometimes and I can’t believe that this is happening to our family. We go to the doctor regularly, all of our kids. We go and we get our health screenings, we go and we get our physical, we go and we get our bloodwork. It’s simple. It could happen to anyone. No one is excluded.”