Sudden Cardiac Arrest in High School Athletes – We need to talk about it

by Andrew Fleszar -

by Andrea Konsoer

The sad reality is we have all heard the tragic stories of young high school athletes suddenly collapsing on the court or field from sudden cardiac arrest. Maybe you were even there and personally witnessed a young life seemingly healthy, active and at the peak of performance, drop down to the ground for no reason and never wake up. Or, maybe this was a relation of yours whom you loved and will miss forever.  

Rod Williams, 17 years old, from Waynesboro, GA, collapsed on the football field six minutes into practice. An autopsy revealed that he had a pre-existing heart condition that went undetected and collapsed as a result of sudden cardiac arrest.

16 year-old Wes Leonard, of Fennville, Michigan, collapsed on the basketball court and later died after scoring the game-winning shot. The Ottawa County medical examiner named his cause of death cardiac arrest due to dilated cardiomyopathy.

Sarah Landauer, 17, from Gainesville, FL, fell unconscious after a 200 meter sprint. Bystanders performed CPR and used a defibrillator to resuscitate her, but she passed away at the hospital. Autopsy reports later named the death likely because of the thickening of the heart muscles.

Although 300,000 Americans die from sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) each year, It’s estimated that 6-8,000 of those deaths result from SCA in the young on an annual basis. Although seemingly rare, It is happening and that number is still scary. It can happen anywhere. To anyone.

What can we do?

Let’s all  learn the warning signs:

It is known that there are 20 hidden cardiac diseases that predispose people to SCA, however, the most common of those is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, (HCM). HCM is a genetic condition that causes the thickening of the heart muscle. Too much vigorous physical activity can cause a person with HCM’s heart to beat at an abnormally dangerous rate. There are many people living with an underlying heart condition that goes undetected.  However, there are a couple of signs that can indicate something is wrong. Here is what to look for:

-Sudden or unexpected fainting

-Extreme fatigue

-Shortness of breath


-Racing heartbeat

If you recognize any of these signs in someone you know, or are experiencing these symptoms yourself, seek medical attention immediately. If it is indeed an underlying heart issue many of them can be treated!

Promote a ‘safety first’ attitude at school by:

-Encouraging students  to talk about injuries and enforce the idea of speaking up when hurt.

-Parents and students must take the sports physical exam seriously and if you are experiencing any symptoms mentioned above, request an EKG from your doctor to get checked out further.

-All schools should have a comprehensive Emergency Action plan and participate in regular drills to ensure proper procedures are carried out in emergency situations.

-Schools must also have an adequate amount of Automated Electronic Defibrillators on site and properly maintain them.

– All teachers, staff, parents and students should be trained in CPR/AED.

Learn CPR:

Knowledge is power and it is important to be armed with this life-saving tool because you never know when you may need it.

When you witness a sudden collapse and SCA occurs, the first thing to do is call 911. Then CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) MUST be performed if the person has any chance of survival. It may be too late, however, bystanders at least need to attempt CPR and begin chest compressions immediately until medical personnel arrive and take over. SCA is time sensitive. The use of an AED (Automatic External Defibrillator) is ideal in this situation and should be available at every school.  

Only about 30% of victims of sudden cardiac arrest (out of the hospital) receive any type of CPR because most bystanders hesitate to help cardiac arrest victims. Research has shown that when bystanders have CPR training, they are more likely to jump in and take action! If people receive CPR immediately after cardiac arrest, it can double or even triple their chances of survival.

What now?

Even though sudden cardiac arrest is rare in young adults, it is still happening. It’s important to be reminded of the warning signs, arm ourselves with knowledge and be ready to take action if it does occur.

The good news is more and more states are mandating CPR training for high school students before graduation.  We passionately believe that teenagers are some of the best rescuers because of their fearlessness and willingness to learn. How can you put a price on saving a life? Junior high and high school students can train and get certified for free with the Student CPR training program! You can register your school here and get started with this life saving education. Because Life Matters.


  1. CPacini

    Good Article. I lost my 16 yr old nephew. A star soccer player. To undiagnosed congenital cardiomyopathy. A few years ago.

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