By Polly Keary, Editor
There are probably two.
Two young people at Monroe High School right now, at risk of their lives and unaware of it, are carrying hidden heart complications that could result in a cardiac arrest and sudden death.
The sisters who run the Nick of Time Foundation never find less than two such students when they bring heart condition screening to a large high school. Once identified, the students can be referred to life-saving treatment.
By so doing, they hope to spare the parents of those children the same kind of grief they endured 10 years ago at the death of 16-year-old Nick Varrenti, a high school football player in Mill Creek.
At 16, Nick Varrenti was in better shape than 99 percent of the population.
“He was a multi-sport athlete, a football player, a big wrestler, played soccer,” said his mother, Darla Varrenti, last week. “He had just started his junior year, and he was starting nose guard on his high school football team.”
A lifelong athlete, he was in the middle of football training, practicing twice a day.
The Sunday of Labor Day weekend of 2004 was a particularly grueling day. He played a varsity game, then filled in to play on the junior varsity team in another game. He then went home. Fit as he was, he had no reason to be concerned about his exertion.
If anything, he might have expected to wake up a little sore.
He didn’t wake up at all.
Varrenti died in his sleep that night in 2004, the victim of a silent, invisible killer. He had an enlarged heart, and no one had ever suspected it.
“We absolutely were shocked,” said Nick’s aunt, Sue Apodaca, who used to drive Nick to school in the mornings. “There were no symptoms.”
As Nick’s family struggled to make sense of their horrifying loss, they learned that what happened to Nick wasn’t rare. Every two days in America, a young person dies of an unsuspected heart problem.
So in 2006, the sisters decided to try to expose that hidden killer every chance they got, and started the Nick of Time Foundation, taking heart exam technology into high schools and screening young athletes.
“We had met a couple of families like ours that had come together for a national conference, made up originally of 40 families who had lost children to sudden cardiac arrest,” said Varrenti. “We met amazingly inspirational families doing things in their states. On the plane ride home, Sue thought of the name, and from there, things just came together.”
Nick’s heart, unbeknownst to anyone, had a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, what many people call an enlarged heart. The muscle of his heart was thickened, which disrupted the muscle alignment and electrical function of the organ. It is a congenital condition, one with which he was born.
In retrospect, the only possible clue was that Nick had mentioned that he was tired a lot, which seemed understandable given his training regimen, but which might have been indicative of his lurking condition.
Nick’s heart failure was different than a heart attack. It was a kind of sudden cardiac arrest. A heart attack is due to circulation problems in the heart arising from things like arterial plaque buildup. A sudden cardiac arrest is due to an electrical problem in the heart. It can result in the heart beating way too fast, making the heart quiver instead of pump.
Deaths such as Nick’s are usually due to inherited conditions, of which HCM is the most common. Other dangerous conditions include improperly positioned arteries, an inflammatory heart condition called myocarditis, or Marfan syndrome, a condition of the connective tissue. Chest trauma can also cause arrest.
The good news is that fatalities due to heart conditions like those are rare. It is thought that one in 200,000 young people dies of sudden cardiac arrest, but no one knows for sure. No one is keeping track. Often such deaths are simply listed as due to natural causes, which is something the Nick of Time Foundation would like to see changed.
In the meantime, they are working to catch dangerous heart conditions before they turn into tragedies.
Screen your child
When the Nick of Time Foundation comes in to a school, they bring volunteers and set up screening equipment. They can screen about 500 kids per school, and kids’ parents or coaches typically sign them up ahead.
Each child gets an electrocardiogram. Some kids are given a second test, an echocardiogram, if the administrators want to check them further.
About five percent of kids need some kind of follow-up. One in 250 kids needs something serious.
In eight years, the Nick of Time Foundation has screened 10,000 kids.
“We have never visited a school where we haven’t found at least two or three kids who need something serious,” said Varrenti. “We have found kids with holes in their hearts, kids with ventricle problems.”
But among those kids, no problem proved to be insurmountable. All but two of the several hundred kids who have needed serious intervention such as surgery have been able to return to athletics.
“One kid was a cross country runner in Renton,” said Varrenti. “He got screened because his coach required it, and our doctors found he had faulty valves, and he had no symptoms. He had open heart surgery, and now he’s running again.”
So important has the work of the Nick of Time Foundation become that now there is a three-year waiting list to get the nonprofit organization to a high school.
But Monroe’s wait is over; teens will have the opportunity to get screened March 5 at Monroe High School. The test is $25 and is available to kids 14 and up. It’s not necessary that the child be an athlete, or even be a student in the Monroe School District.
For appointments, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The organization is asking for donations to make it possible to screen kids whose parents can’t afford the test. Learn more about donating and/or volunteering at http://nickoftimefoundation.org/.
Screening kids is easy and inexpensive, and one day Varrenti and Apodaca would like to see the United States pattern after Italy, where kids get at least three EKGs during their school years, with athletes tested annually.
One test per school career isn’t enough to catch everyone with potential heart issues.
But it will catch at least two at Monroe High School, if history is any teacher.
And that’s two kids who might otherwise have been lost to their families and communities. For Varrenti and Apodaca, that’s a good place to start.