Free TOPS physicals are tomorrow for HS athletes

Just a couple of months ago, a freshman at Chapel Hill High School in Georgia collapsed at track practice and died shortly after.  Doctors discovered he had an enlarged heart and died of a sudden cardiac arrhythmia.

And just weeks ago, an 18-year-old athlete in Boston also collapsed at track practice, this time at Nashoba Regional High School, and was unable to be revived by paramedics.  He had passed a physical in December and was cleared to play.

These are just two of the many stories you can find in newspapers across the country about student-athletes dying during a practice or game, most often due to an undiagnosed heart condition that does not show up during routine sports physicals.

And that’s why TOPS was formed some 45 years ago, providing free health screenings to high school and college students.  Tomorrow, the free physicals will be available at Sunnyslope High School and thousands of players will show up to make sure they are physically fit enough to handle the rigors of athletic competition.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” said a classmate of the fallen Boston athlete.  “How can someone be just fine one minute, and then dead the next?”

But that’s exactly why TOPS (Team of Physicians for Students) is out there taking the physical exam to the next level.  According to Dr. Paul Steingard, who has been with the program from the outset, the most common cause of death in young athletes is Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), a thickening of the heart muscle that obstructs blood flow to the heart.  HCM is a genetic disorder, and often family members aren’t aware they are at risk.

The free health screenings provided by the hundreds of volunteer doctors and nurses working in the TOPS programs include free EKGs.  And, if a potential heart problem is detected, the athlete can be given a free echocardiogram right then.  The Arizona Heart Institute provides cardiologists who attend the sessions.

These specialized tests administered at the TOPS programs would cost thousands of dollars if performed in a hospital, but are included, if needed, as part of the free screenings.

There is another free screening scheduled for June 19 at Midwestern University.  That session is for athletes playing in the junior college programs.