GMC cardiologist Dr. Salil Patel said recent heart condition tragedies have made the community more aware about the need to have student-athlete's hearts checked for electrical and structural abnormalities.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- As a father who lost his son to an abnormal heart condition, Herb Nelson understands first hand the importance of heart screenings for children.
Yet Nelson also recognizes that there was no guarantee a "million dollar test" would have saved his son, Jeremy. But that hasn't stopped Nelson in the three months since his son passed away from making awareness for heart conditions in children his "goal in life."
"We want to be more aware now, we're going to pay attention to it now," Nelson said. "When the death angel knocks on your door, you will pay attention."
The Buford community has experienced several heart-related tragedies recently, and that's why a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization, Simon's Fund, contacted Gwinnett County Public Schools, Nelson and other community members to put on a heart screening event.
Jeremy Nelson, 12, died during a Gwinnett Basketball League all-star game in January, which followed two other similar deaths in a little more than a year. Wolves football coach Ryan Daniel collapsed during a pickup basketball game in January 2012 and died, and Buford student Adam Smith died in similar fashion during a September basketball workout.
The screenings will be held at the Cardiovascular Group in Lawrenceville at 755 Walther Road, administered by doctors from the practice.
Because of the attention the recent tragedies have received, a cardiologist from the practice, Dr. Salil Patel, said response for the event has "blown the doors off" of projections based on similar events put on by Simon's Fund.
Patel said they originally expected 280 children to sign up, but then expanded it to 330, and eventually had more than 1,000 express interest in registration. That's why a similar event is planned for this summer, although a specific date has not yet been scheduled, Patel said.
Darren Sudman, the founder of Simon's Fund, said he was "very surprised" that 300 slots disappeared within four hours, and another 300 were gone in less than 10 hours.
"It tells me the parents are concerned, and they're starved for this kind of reassurance," he said.
Darren and Phyllis Sudman founded Simon's Fund in 2005 after their seemingly healthy 14-week old son, Simon, died from sudden cardiac arrest during a nap.
Patel said each screening would include an electrocardiogram exam, physical and an echocardiogram, if needed. Doctors will notify a student if any issues are found and refer them to a cardiologist for a followup, if needed.
Sudman said widely cited research suggests one out of every 100 students has an undetected heart condition.
Patel said what he and other cardiologists will check for is abnormal electrical conditions, silent defects found only through an EKG, murmurs or an abnormal pulse that could trigger a followup.
"If we our job right, nothing happens," Patel said. "All we know is down the road. You don't know that you saved two kids, or five kids or 10 kids."
Medical practices have changed in recent years for standard sports physicals conducted by primary care doctors and pediatricians, Patel said. He said they are more attuned to murmurs and many examine the cardiovascular system more closely.
Patel recommends an EKG with each student-athlete exam, especially for children older than 10 years old, but said it's not a standard requirement for most physicals.
"There are things you won't be able to hear with a stethoscope," Patel said.
Sudman agreed, and added that nothing is foolproof and doctors are human, but he said awareness leads to checking more children and finding treatable symptoms.
Sudman's group has organized heart screenings for about eight years, but said statistics have remained consistent for about 30 years.
"The big difference is the number of people testing, and media reporting on it," Sudman said. "It's always been going on, but now more parents are aware of it, and the media is more aware and reporting on it."
The Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office reported in January that an autopsy revealed that Jeremy Nelson had fluid on his lungs, and also had condition that demonstrated "marked pulmonary edema."
Herb Nelson said in the aftermath of his son's passing, he's learned of a condition called "long QT," which is a heart rhythm disorder that can cause fast and chaotic heartbeats. But now Nelson has researched long QT, and is more aware of it because it impacted his community.
Since his son's passing, Nelson said one of his lifestyle changes is to go to a gym every day.
"I'm overweight, could drop dead any day," Nelson said. "I go, and I hear my son's spirit say 'Get it done.'"