That can be said for the roaring crowd, screaming and on their feet.
It can be said for the anxious coach, watching the seconds tick down on the clock with the game still tied at 55.
It can even be said for the basketball team, desperate to get the win that would cap off their undefeated season.
Unfortunately, the same can be said for Wes Leonard, whose last second layup won that final game for Fennville High. As the buzzer sounded and his teammates hoisted him up on their shoulders, Leonard’s heart began to beat faster and faster. Then, just as swiftly as he was lifted up, Wes Leonard collapsed to the floor.
The final medical report listed the cause of death as cardiac arrest due to dilated cardiomyopathy, more commonly known as an enlarged heart. But whatever you call it, a teenager died last year from a heart condition he never even knew the name of. And when cases of sudden cardiac death are occurring all over America, and even in our very community, what are we doing to keep our athletes safe?
Leonard, a junior from Fennville, Michigan, had not undergone a heart screening that year, but it’s likely that his condition wouldn’t have even been detected. In the days prior to that fatal game, Leonard was recovering from the flu. Although sounding harmless, the flu can cause inflammation of the heart and weaken the muscle walls. Within two weeks, you can go from high fever to heart failure.
The severity of serious health conditions like Leonard’s have recently been glimpsed by the Lahser community. On September 14th, while attending a varsity football game, Lahser freshman Brandon Till started to feel dizzy and cold. While leaving the game with two friends to get picked up at halftime, he felt pain ripping at his chest. Coughing violently, he collapsed to the pavement, his mind numb. Later that night he found himself in the emergency room, fearing for the worst. After a long night of pain and prayers, Brandon was discharged from the hospital, his health stable. He was diagnosed with a condition called costochondritis, an inflammation of cartilage in the chest, whose symptoms feel like that of a heart attack. Luckily, this can be helped with various medications and treatments.
Although Till is unsure about his return to sports, he is thankful his was a more fortunate fate than that of Leonard and many before him. “I’m glad I go to Lahser,” Till reflects. “And I’m glad everyone just cared so much. It really does help. Support is the best thing you can have at a serious time like that. I’m just glad it’s over with, and hopefully now things will get better.”
The tragic deaths of Wes Leonard and so many other young athletes have created global controversy over the safety of high school and collegiate sports. From politicians to Pop Warner coaches, there has been outcry over what precautions should be taken in detecting serious cardiac conditions. Who is responsible for the safety of these athletes? Is it safe for an athlete to participate in a sport without being screened for a heart condition? Will heart screenings ever become mandatory?
Many people believe that heart screenings, particularly ECGs, or electrocardiograms that test the electrical activity of the heart, would prevent the majority of cardiac deaths. “Heart screenings help to find any indication of hidden heart defects that may not be causing symptoms,” says Monique Brand, Manager of ECG and the Ernst Cardiovascular Center at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. “We are primarily looking for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an abnormal thickening of the heart.”
Although the chances of finding a heart problem through a screening are about 1 in 500, the results of having such a problem can be devastating. Which leads to the question that if Wes Leonard or other late athletes had undergone a screening that was mandatory as a part of their standard physical, would the outcome have been any different? “I don’t know if mandatory screenings are the answer, but I am an advocate for the testing,” Brand continues. “I just don’t think the infrastructure is there to support all kids getting an ECG at a physical at this point.”
It had been nearly fifteen months since her son’s death that Jocelyn Leonard found herself standing at a graduation. Not for her youngest child, who was still a freshman. Instead the cap she held in her hands would’ve belonged to her eldest son, Wes. And the graduation she was attending was held on the very court Wes played his final game on. While some thought back to the tragic night when Wes Leonard’s heart beat for the final time, others looked to the future. The Wes Leonard Heart Team is working to put AEDs, machines that are critical to saving the lives of people in sudden cardiac arrest, in every school across the state. The night was indeed about the legacy of Wes, but was also the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of the 99 students graduating from Fennville High. The gymnasium didn’t feel so different from the night where Wes Leonard scored that winning layup in overtime.
The crowd cheered.