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Simple Screenings Could Reveal Hidden Heart Problems In Kids

BOSTON (CBS) -- Josh Thibodeau was a boy with a big smile, tons of energy, and the fun family nickname "Moose."

"Super sensitive, super sweet kid," says his mom, Deb O'Brien-Thibodeau.  Five years ago Josh collapsed at soccer camp.  The Holden boy was just 12 years old.

His dad, Ralph Thibodeau, remembers every moment of that horrible day.

"Josh is laying there and I think my first recollection is I hear, 'I don't hear a heartbeat,'" he said.

Josh died from an undiagnosed heart condition called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy or HCM.  Sudden cardiac death claims the lives of about 100 to 150 young athletes every year.

"It's so easy to detect these heart conditions: an EKG or an echocardiogram.  Which if Josh had those he could be with us," said his mom.

An EKG measures the electrical currents of the heart.  An echo is an ultrasound. Neither are routinely done on the majority of healthy kids.  The American Heart Association only recommends a 14-point questionnaire and check-up

Josh Thibodeau
Josh Thibodeau (WBZ-TV)

"That particular test, called the history and physical, it's a bad test. We miss the kids who have the problem and we identify kids that  don't have problem for lengthy cardiac work-ups," said Dr. Gian Corrado, the head team physician at Northeastern University

Dr. Corrado is out to prove that echocardiograms can save lives and should be adopted as the new standard of care.

Dr. Corrado demonstrated how the portable ultrasound works, "within seconds we see a beautiful view of the heart."  That view can help a doctor quickly identify HCM, an abnormal thickening of the walls of the heart.   "The whole issue is these kids never show a single sign of it. The first sign of it is sudden death."

Dr. Corrado screened dozens of athletes at Northeastern using an echo and found the test to be fast and reliable.  He told us the key is getting portable ultrasounds directly to the players and training doctors how to use them.  "If you send everyone for a full-fledge echo it's very expensive, you can't do that, clearly.  But if a front line physician throws a probe on an ultrasound he already has because he/she is using it for other things, it costs nothing, right?"

Dr. Corrado's next step is a wide-scale study at Boston public schools.  "Hopefully we'll get every physician doing ultrasounds of the heart.  I think that's clearly the future."

Dr. Douglas P. Zipes, spokesperson for the  American Heart Association, told us there are no plans to change the current screening recommendations because of  "the potential for false positives and false negatives and the expense considering the [low] number of athletes who have sudden death annually... "

"It infuriates me. Saying that it's too expensive," said Josh's dad, Ralph. And Josh's mom quickly points out that the current screening method wasn't enough to save her son.  Because of Josh, his own brother and a childhood friend were both screened and diagnosed with completely different heart conditions.  His family now holds free heart screenings in Josh's name every year       

"You have their eyes checked, you have their ears checked, the school shuts down gym because we have to check posture," said Josh's mom.  "Oh my gosh, please, check the heart you don't know what's going on under there."

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