For Dale Nickos, who lost his 17-year-old son, Tim, three years ago to an undetected heart defect, the all-school heart scan at Oak Lawn Community High School on March 20 was a dream come true.
Tim was between his junior and senior year at OLCHS when he passed away in his sleep in June 2011. It wasn’t until four months later when the autopsy results came back when his father learned that Tim died of an enlarged heart or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an undetected heart condition he most likely had since birth.
More than 1,200 OLCHS students took advantage of free heart scans sponsored by Young Hearts for Life, an organization started by an Dr. Joseph Marek, a pediatric cardiologist from Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge.
About 3,000 young adults die every year of sudden cardiac death in the United States. Like Tim Nickos, most are active, physically fit teens who participate in sports programs.
Tim swam the 500-meter on the Spartan swimming team. He was also a trumpeter in the high school band, and loved to build racing engines with his grandfather.
An enlarged heart or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes. In Tim’s case, as in many others, his level of physical activity made his undetected condition worse, bringing on sudden cardiac death.
Tim wasn’t the first Oak Lawn student to die from sudden cardiac death. In April 2005, Dominic Duran, 14, collapsed during baseball practice and died 10 days later. An autopsy later revealed that Dominic had an even rarer version of the disease, hardening of the arteries.
During last Thurdsday’s screening, students were administered electrocardiograms, commonly known as EKGs or ECGs, which took about five minutes to perform.
After a physician reads the EKG results, a member of the Young Hearts for Life team will contact the student’s family, usually by email, to share the results. If the results show abnormalities, additional testing by the family doctor or a heart specialist is recommended.
Dr. Frank Zimmerman, director of pediatric electrophysiology at Advocate Children’s Hospital-Oak Lawn, advises that not just varsity athletes get screened, but all students involved at various levels of physical activity.
Dr. Zimmerman says that any student can have undetected heart abnormalities, such as irregular heartbeat or an arrhythmia.
As students lined up in the gym by the hundreds, OLCHS superintendent and principal Dr. Michael Riordan said that virtually all of the student body took part in the school-wide heart screenings.
The day before the heart scans took place, dozens of volunteers, including parents and community members, were trained in administering the EKGs under the supervision of medical professionals. Advocate Children’s Hospital-Oak Lawn footed the costs the for the 1,000+ heart scans, about $12,000.
Nickos believes that had his only son and child had a heart scan, Tim might be alive today. It may have ended his swimming career, but he’d be alive.
“Tim will be remembered for many, many years where before he was just a student,” Dale Nickos said. “If it wasn’t for Tim passing we might not have Young Hearts for Life Here today and possibly save some kids’ lives.”