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Young Hearts for Life

Joliet Catholic Academy to bring cardiac screenings to all students

In April, hundreds of Joliet Catholic Academy students will have electrocardiogram tests on their hearts. The simple, noninvasive EKGs are designed to catch cardiac electrical abnormalities that can cause sudden death. The program, Young Hearts for Life, is free to students.

The JCA family went through the cardiac death of one of its students before.

In 2011, 20-year-old JCA graduate Andrew Giaudrone was playing a pickup game of basketball when he died suddenly of an undiscovered heart problem.

“It was on a Sunday night,” said his father, Doug. “He took a shot, turned around, and he was down. He collapsed right there.”

Doug was at a friend’s house when it happened and got the news by a phone call that his son had passed out. He raced to the scene.

“Driving there, it was just unbelievable,” he said. “I thought, maybe he just exerted himself and passed out.”

Andrew had died suddenly of an underlying heart problem. There were no indications anything was amiss. He was a four-year, three-sport athlete at JCA, playing football, basketball and baseball.

“He never complained about anything [being wrong],” his father said. “He plays three sports his whole high school, and the last thing you think of is them having any problem because they’re in such good shape. We never had any concerns.”

Since then, Doug Giaudrone has been active in area fundraisers and heart health awareness programs, including bringing Young Hearts for Life, YH4L, to JCA on April 6.

The spokesperson for Young Hearts for Life, Kathy Marek, said the organization has performed more than 160,000 EKGs on high school and college students in the Chicago area since it began in 2006. Founded by her husband, cardiologist Dr. Joseph Marek, YH4L’s goal is to screen students for conditions that could lead to sudden cardiac death.

He had seen reports in Europe of EKG tests decreasing the risk of sudden death in teens by 89 percent. The tests screen those ages 14 to 24 for cardiac electrical abnormalities such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), Long QT, Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome (WPW) and arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD).

The big limiting factor, Kathy Marek said, was how to make it cost-effective.

At JCA, the April screenings will be funded by a group called “TeamPODZ,” which was formed after 26-year-old Dan Podczerwinski died of undiagnosed cardiomyopathy on Memorial Day in 2013.

Otherwise healthy and vibrant, Podczerwinski slumped over and died on that day without any symptoms. His parents, Chuck and Sue, and family friends and others have sponsored many Young Hearts for Life EKG screening events ever since through TeamPODZ.

“It’s because of them that we are able to go there (to JCA),” Marek said.

Dr. Marek is present at every screening performed by Young Hearts for Life to read the EKGs.

YH4L also sponsors public education on early symptoms of conditions that can lead to sudden cardiac death. School sports physicals only catch 4 percent of those conditions, Kathy Marek said. Also, it’s not just athletes who have these abnormalities, she said. It could be anyone.

The group recommends children of that age have the screenings every two years, Marek said, because the EKG signals might show the abnormalities one year, when they didn’t show them two years before.

The group also trains coaches on what to do if there is a cardiac emergency during training or games.