When Allan Chaney was 20 years old, he was a healthy young man on a basketball scholarship at Virginia Tech University. “One morning I did a workout, and at the end I started to have rapid heartbeats,” he recalls. “I was breathing really fast, and I couldn’t stop it. I thought I must be just tired, but when I tried to take a deep breath, I couldn’t.” Chaney passed out, and although he felt fine when he regained consciousness, the coach brought him to the hospital. He was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the middle layer of the heart wall caused by a viral infection.
Undiagnosed myocarditis is just one of the conditions that can cause sudden cardiac arrest, also called sudden cardiac death, among young athletes. About half the time young athletes die from cardiac events it’s due to hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy. This genetic abnormality causes an area of the heart to become two to three times thicker than usual, making it difficult for blood to pump past the thick point.
Chaney told his story at a symposium on sudden cardiac arrest in young athletes hosted by the Duke Heart Center last spring. “Sudden cardiac arrest is an uncommon event in athletes, but it is very tragic when it happens, particularly when the athlete is a young person,” says Mahesh Patel, MD, a Duke cardiologist and co-organizer of the symposium. “Most cases of sudden cardiac arrest in athletes are due to pre-existing, undiagnosed heart disease. It is a poorly understood field overall. We’ve been working to bring greater awareness to physicians and the broader community about this issue.”