Heart of a Champion

News, Nutrition and Fitness | 11 months ago

Sports Screening Event Protects Health of Young Champions

For more than 15 years, Heart of a Champion Day has screened student-athletes and helped them play sports safely. The program flagged Laura Porter’s heart rhythm problem, leading her to find effective treatment.

Laura Porter remembers participating in the American Heart Association’s Jump Rope for Heart program (now known as the Kids Heart Challenge) when she was in elementary school. She was supposed to take her pulse after jumping rope for five minutes. When Laura discovered her pulse was 110, she thought she must have calculated it incorrectly. So, she recorded a lower heart rate that was similar to the rates reported by her classmates. 

“I was always out of breath and had a pounding heart rate,” Laura explains. “And I was always dizzy after exercise. Even just standing up after sitting in a chair would send my heart rate to 120. These symptoms affected my quality of life. But I never realized they were abnormal – no one ever told me.”  

That changed when she participated in Atrium Health’s Heart of a Champion Day. At the time, she was a student at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, and preparing to start playing softball as a freshman. Through the program, her electrocardiogram (EKG) revealed she was having premature ventricular contractions (extra heartbeats that disrupt normal heart rhythm).  

"The doctors said, ‘This isn’t normal. You shouldn’t be living like this,’” she says. “It was an educational experience – learning what my body was supposed to be like. It was also helpful to see a doctor for follow-up to make sure something else wasn’t going on.”

Laura’s experience with Heart of a Champion Day led to additional appointments and discoveries regarding her health. 

After Heart of a Champion Day, Laura was referred to a cardiologist with Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. He performed a more in-depth exam, did some bloodwork and made sure she had an echocardiogram with contrast. 

“He concluded that my pectus excavatum (chest wall deformity) had changed the position in which my heart sits in my chest,” she notes. “It was squished up against my breastbone and ribs, which was causing my abnormal EKG readings and minor arrhythmias.”

Laura was eventually diagnosed with inappropriate sinus tachycardia, which means that her heart works harder and faster than it needs to most of the time. She also has high blood pressure. Learning about her health history gave her peace of mind as she continued to play softball and engage in other activities.

Largest Sports Screening Event

This year’s Heart of a Champion Day will be held on June 3, 2023. The sports-specific health screening and educational program combines world-class care areas, including: Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute, Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital and Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute

Heart of a Champion Day 2023 will be held at Bank of America Stadium. This large venue will allow volunteers to provide screenings and additional activities in a single location. 

“It’s the largest sports screening event in the U.S., and it’s free to student-athletes who are enrolled in one of our partner schools,” explains Dr. David Price, medical director of Heart of a Champion Day at Atrium Health and sports medicine physician with Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute. “Our goal is to provide athletic screenings and education that will help student-athletes play sports safely.” 

Volunteers are planning to complete 2,000 screenings throughout the day. High school athletes will participate from counties surrounding Charlotte in North and South Carolina. 

Physical and Mental Health Screenings

Heart of a Champion Day athletic screenings include:

  • A sports specific medical exam, including a thorough review of the athlete’s medical history
  • A physical exam, with a head-to-toe sports-specific assessment (including orthopedic screening) 
  • Mental health screening 
  • An EKG for cardiovascular screening

An EKG is an important test to detect a heart disorder that may otherwise go undetected. 

“The physical exam includes input and oversight from multiple specialists, including orthopedic providers who check the athlete’s bones and joints,” explains Margo Long, athletic trainer with Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute. “Our physicians carefully review each physical to ensure nothing was missed and note whether the athlete is cleared to play.”

According to Long, parents love the program for its ease and convenience. “It gets their child’s sports physical and cardiac screening done all at once,” she says. “All the results are stored in one electronic file, which is easily accessible by the child’s school and family. That way, we’re not expecting teenagers to help us keep track of paperwork.”

Program volunteers include athletic trainers, registered dieticians, performance experts, sports medicine physicians, cardiologists and their screening team, primary care providers, residents in training, orthopedists, physical therapists, nutritionists, social workers, psychologists, nurses and other clinical assistants.

In addition to exams and screenings, there will be giveaways and activities set up to keep students engaged. For example, there will be CPR training and an athletic performance station. This station will allow students to see how high or far they can jump. Students and their families will also have the opportunity to learn tips for injury prevention.

Using a holistic approach, Heart of a Champion Day focuses on the whole patient.

“I think it’s a big deal, especially coming out of the pandemic, to prioritize the mental health of our athletes,” Price explains. “If we determine an athlete is at risk for anxiety or depression, we have counselors on site who can see them in a private room and help them get the appropriate follow-up care.” 

Filling a Need in the Community

The program is designed to help student-athletes get the care they need in order to play sports safely.

“The problem is that many student-athletes don’t see a doctor very often in their teen years,” explains Price. “Our program might be the only access they have to a provider to discuss their health, especially as it relates to sports. This is particularly beneficial for student-athletes from underserved communities who might not have access to primary care.”

If student-athletes don’t have a regular doctor, volunteers can help connect them with a primary care doctor or an advanced practice provider. 

Price, who helped found the program in 2007, has enjoyed seeing student-athletes improve their health over the years. “It’s the most satisfying thing to see someone get treated for a condition that may have put them at risk for a serious health issue and get them back on the field playing safely,” he says.

Price’s passion for sports medicine stems from losing his father and his two brothers to heart attacks while they were all participating in sports. 

“Those events impacted me greatly, inspiring me to push others to be active but also to make sure they’re safe to do so,” he explains. “I have played sports for my entire life. When I was younger, I passed every sports physical because no one ever asked questions about my heart. We formed a team of dedicated experts who were excited to provide sports-related physicals in an organized, efficient manner.”

How do program volunteers make the participants feel? Laura recalls,I remember feeling really nervous going into the program. But the doctors were all very kind, comforting and approachable. They told us to ask questions about the screening process, since it can be really stressful for a young person.”

Impact on Long-Term Health

The program screens for potential heart problems, which tend to have the most significant impact on long-term health. But volunteers have also identified student-athletes with other conditions and symptoms, including anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, leukemia and uncontrolled asthma. 

“It’s important to remember that our screenings are not meant to replace a yearly physical with a regular doctor. They’re designed to enhance this annual assessment and ensure that athletes play sports safely,” notes Price. “The cardiac screening we do is something a regular doctor wouldn't normally cover. Our screening process is more comprehensive.”

Long has seen multiple young athletes benefit from Heart of a Champion Day and eventually return to play. “Through the program, Jaylen Riley, an alumni from my school, discovered he had a heart murmur caused by a defective heart valve,” she explains. “The defect went undetected from birth to age 14 and could have cost him his life. After having open-heart surgery at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute, he recovered well and returned to play. He went on to play college football.”

Laura takes an antiarrhythmic medication to regulate her heart rhythm. “Now I can stand up and not feel dizzy,” she explains. “I can walk and talk without feeling breathless. For me, it’s all about managing symptoms and improving quality of life.”

Her medication allows her to enjoy her favorite outdoor activities, including paddleboarding and riding horses. She recently participated in a 5K race.

Open and Honest Communication

For student-athletes to benefit the most from Heart of a Champion Day, health advocacy is vital. “It’s important to learn what’s normal for your body and ask your doctor about it,” says Laura. “Then you can get the treatment you need to feel your best.”

Register an Athlete

Learn more and register a high school athlete for Heart of a Champion Day by May 21, 2023.