A way to save lives or a waste of money?

That’s what the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education will have to decide in the next few months as it weighs whether to host student heart screenings at the school.

Last week, more than 1,200 students at Lyons Township High School underwent free electrocardiograms (commonly referred to as an EKG or ECG) at the high school as part of a voluntary program supported by the nonprofit foundation Young Hearts for Life. 

Cardiologist Joseph Marek founded Young Hearts for Life in 2006 after the sudden death of Roosevelt Jones, a 17-year-old Neuqua Valley High School student, who collapsed and died while playing a pickup basketball game at his high school gym in 2004. 

The purpose of the heart screenings is to detect rare heart abnormalities such as the one that killed Jones. 

“He died of a condition that we’re able to detect nowadays,” Marek said.

A parent of a Riverside-Brookfield High School student recently contacted the school and asked it to consider hosting heart screening. The school board briefly discussed the issue in October, and the school’s administration is looking into it. 

District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis and Principal Kristin Smetana visited LTHS last week to observe some of the screenings and learn more what it would take to host a screening.

However, District 208 board member Dr. John Keen, a radiologist, opposes hosting heart screenings, saying he was concerned with the number of false positives.

“We really have to be very careful before we start treading into this,” Keen said at last month’s school board meeting.

The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommends against mass EKG screenings of teenagers. 

“Mainly there are a lot of false positives and false negatives that are involved in the test,” said Julia Kersey, the senior director of communications for the American Heart Association. “The research has shown that it’s really not an effective way to save lives.”

Keen elaborated on his concerns in an email to the Landmark, saying the topic was both controversial and complicated.

“My review of the literature shows that there is no scientific evidence using randomized trials that EKG screening in conjunction with earlier treatment is effective in ‘saving lives,'” Keen wrote. “Furthermore, the false-positive rate is 10 percent, which means that 1 out of 10 children screened will need additional evaluation.” 

But Marek disagreed with that assessment, saying that false positives account for just 1 percent of the results. Those EKGs are then reviewed, Marek said, and parents are contacted and advised to follow up with their own physician.

“These just create a suspicion where the young adult then would need further evaluation,” Marek said. “We don’t interfere with the patient-physician relationship. They go to their own doctor and their own doctor decides on the workup or referral. Usually these are things that need to be referred to a cardiologist.”

Marek says that the risk of false positives is outweighed by the benefits.

“As a parent if you ask me would you accept a one percent false positive rate, or even a 10 percent false positive rate, to make sure that my kid was less likely to die on the playing field I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that,'” Marek said. 

Marek says that the rate of false positives has been going down, because he and his colleagues have gained so much experience reading the EKGs of teenagers. 

“Prior to 10 years ago there was little or no understanding of what the normal EKG looked like in this age group, because no one did them,” Marek said.

Marek says that the EKG can help identify rare conditions that can lead to sudden death and that those conditions cannot be detected by a standard physical exam. 

“These issues are really the most prevalent from about age 12 until the early 20s,” Marek said. “Many of these conditions are genetic. Most of the time they don’t have symptoms.”

The EKG is a quick, simple, and painless test that takes about six minutes to perform. At LTHS, if parents want their child to be screened they sign them up. The student is generally pulled out a gym class for testing. 

Last week’s screening was the third time Young Hearts for Life performed the screenings at LTHS, which usually hosts the screenings once every two years.

Young Hearts for Life has also done screenings at many other high schools in the western suburbs including Nazareth Academy, Downers Grove North and South, Naperville North and Central, Naperville District 204, St. Charles East and North to name a few. 

“This year we’re doing about 15 schools,” Marek said. “We’ve been able screen over 130,000 students.”

The screening at LTHS cost $15,000. The LTHS Booster Club donated $5,000, while the Community Memorial Foundation kicked in $1,500 and the school district paid the remaining the remaining $8,500.

Community volunteers, who are trained the night before, conduct the EKG. 

“If you can figure out how to use a cellphone, you can do an EKG,” Marek said.

Marek, who works for Advocate Medical Group, and two of his colleagues then read the EKGs.

Young Hearts for Life only has one employee, an administrative person who is a nurse.

“This is all volunteer work,” Marek said “I have a regular daytime job of being a cardiologist. My practice supports and frees up my time to do this.”

Marek said that whether to undergo the EKG is strictly voluntary. Jennifer Bialobok, the community relations coordinator at LTHS, says that the school simply makes the test available for students.

“Of course it’s voluntary and families make the decision on their own whether or not they want to participate, but we’re happy to provide a venue where, should parents choose, they can have their students screened,” Bialobok said.

Skinkis says RBHS is still in the information gathering stage about whether it should host heart screenings. 

“The administration has just begun its investigation to prepare a recommendation for the board to consider in December or January, Skinkis said in an email. “The LT visit helped us get an understanding of the planning and preparation that would go into hosting the event.”

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