SCD in Athletes: Lessons From High-Profile Cases

; Manesh R. Patel, MD


September 18, 2023

Recorded August 26, 2023. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Robert A. Harrington, MD: Hi. This is Bob Harrington from Weill Cornell Medicine. It's my first show while at Weill Cornell Medicine. I'm here with my good friend, Manesh Patel, from Duke University. We're at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) congress in Amsterdam, and I pulled Manesh into the studio for a conversation about something that's really topical right now: sudden cardiac death in athletes.

What I hope to do over the course of the next 15 minutes or so is really pick Manesh's brain on how we are thinking about this. Are we going to think about treatment issues? Are we going to think about prevention issues? Are we thinking about screening? We'll try to make it practical.

Dr Manesh Patel is chief of cardiovascular medicine at Duke University and also the director of the Duke Heart Center. Manesh, thanks for joining me here.

Bronny James and Damar Hamlin

Manesh R. Patel, MD: Excited to be here, Bob. Always.

Harrington: You and I talked about this topic a few weeks ago, and then just yesterday a news article comes out about the cause of Bronny James' sudden cardiac death. Let me put this into a bigger societal context.

Last winter, Damar Hamlin, from the Buffalo Bills, suffered a traumatic injury on the field, and with that, had cardiac arrest. He's back playing football — great to see. You and I are involved with the American Heart Association. He's been very supportive of our efforts around things like CPR. He's been terrific. It's great to see him playing.

 We know a little less about Bronny James. The news articles say the cause is both functional and anatomical, and it seems to be congenital, but we don't have any details beyond this. Let's not focus on the people; let's focus on the topic.

Patel: I'm excited that we're having the conversation. First and foremost, we're excited that, with what we've seen on a national stage, these two individuals are doing well. They survived sudden cardiac death, which is a testament to all the things that we'll talk about.

There are many important questions, like, is this increasing? Is this something we can prevent? And what are those things that might be happening to athletes?

Harrington: Can we predict it?

Patel: Right. I think the idea of sudden cardiac death in athletes is really a critical one for us to think about because it does concern participation and what we think about that. There are many experts who've been studying this for years that I now get to work with.

Harrington: Tell us a little bit about the kind of things you've been doing in this area.

Patel: Even before these events in the COVID era, we were wondering about athletes getting myocarditis, just in general, what do we know about that?. People like Aaron Baggish, Kim Harmon, Jonathan Drezner, and others have been studying this.

Harrington: You and I did a show on athletes and COVID-19.

Patel: With the American Heart Association (AHA), the Cornell Foundation, and others, we started the Outcomes Registry for Cardiac Conditions in Athletes (ORCCA). This registry is across the United States and athletes can sign up.

Harrington: Is it voluntary? Do the schools sign them up?

Patel: The athletes sign up. Team trainers and doctors talk to the athletes. We don't really know the risks of some of these conditions. There's a lot of gray area — people with certain conditions that were really interesting; aortas that are dilated in tall people.

Harrington: Long QT.

Patel: Long QT. There are certainly things that we know we should be intervening on and others where participation is a question. All of these we are trying to longitudinally put into the registry and follow them over time.

The second thing is understanding from the last Bethesda Conference that we want shared decision-making. There are going to be conditions where you say, "Look, I think your risk is high. You've a family history of sudden cardiac death. You have arrhythmias while you're exercising."

Harrington: You have a big, thick heart.

Patel: If you have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, whether you're an athlete or a 40-year-old adult, we're going to have the same conversation. I think that holds. There's a variety or a spectrum where we don't know. I think the registry is one big step.

Thinking back to when somebody has an event, I would say take the teachable moment with the AHA and others to make sure your communities and your areas have automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and CPR training, and that we get to 100%: 100% response, 100% CPR, 100% defibrillation. I think that's the first step.

Chain of Survival

Harrington: Let's really focus on the chain of survival. It is a chain: If any link is broken, your chance of survival really drops. We've had some well-known cases within our AHA community, including somebody who talks about it regularly: Kevin Volpp, from the University of Pennsylvania, a health economist. He had almost the perfect chain of survival. He had sudden cardiac death in a restaurant that was immediately observed, CPR started, EMTs called, and AED on the scene. Impressive.

Patel: That was in Cincinnati, where there are communities that have really worked on these things. I think you're right. The chain of survival with rapid CPR to build a nation of survivors is key. The people at the AHA are helping us do this; there is a national call to make sure CPR is something that people feel comfortable doing. That they do it in men and women. They do it for anyone that goes down. And realize that it's CPR that is hands-only. I think that's an important lesson from Damar's work, Nancy Brown's, and AHA's. Actually, schools in many countries require that to get through primary school.

Harrington: CPR training is a requirement to graduate from high school in some states.

Patel: My son just graduated from high school, and we spent time at his school making sure that everybody had access to CPR training. I think the way to do this is to start with that. Now getting more specific about teams and athletes, I think most have emergency action plans, but it's having action plans that work because of where you are and where the AED locations might be, or what the sport is. Having a plan on how you're going to get that athlete to a place where you can help them recover is an important piece.

From there, I think the conversation for us is about what can we do as a society and as a country to answer some critical questions, including some real-world questions that people are asking: We had COVID-19 and we're hearing these cases. Is this going up or down, and are these related?

Soon, hopefully the same group I talked about and others will have a publication, working with the NCAA to look at all of the deaths that they observed in NCAA Division I athletes over 20 years, including the sudden cardiac deaths. I won't share the results because the publication isn't out, but I think that's the kind of important information that will help us understand if these rates are going up or down.

Harrington: What's associated with that risk? Then we can start getting at whether it is something that, when we're doing assessment for suitability for sports, has risk factors that should warrant more investigation.

Patel: Much like the field of cardiology, we haven't enough of an evidence base, the right technologies, or the studies to determine how we should do screening, or not screening, across the board. Again, there is variation. There are some countries where anyone participating is going to get an ECG and an echocardiogram. There are other countries, like the United States, where it's going to be a bit dependent on athlete risk.

Harrington: And where you live.

Patel: And where you live. Unfortunately, again, that brings in the idea that it might not be equitable in how we're evaluating these individuals. I do think the opportunity to start to standardize that evaluation exists, and it likely comes from the ability to look back and say, "Here are some higher-risk individuals or some higher-risk scenarios."

Harrington: Isn't this what we do all the time in clinical medicine?

Patel: It's going to be applied to a population that maybe is not as studied. I said this to you before we came on. The other thing is to make sure that the shared decision-making allows athletes who feel like they have a chance or want to play. During COVID, we had many college athletes, high school athletes, and kids not able to participate in sports. There was significant depression, feeling of loneliness, and even physical loss. People were actually getting less conditioned quickly. There's a great benefit to sports participation.

Harrington: We were extrapolating from older data. If I've just had this new infection, COVID, and I've maybe got some signs of it in my heart, why can't I exercise? That's extrapolating from old myocarditis data.

Patel: We're having to learn and follow it. I think there's value in following that and getting those data. The second thing I think is really valuable is that we've shown that these individuals, if you do have these conversations and follow them, can participate and can be part of understanding the risk just like anything else.

Harrington: Is it sport specific? Are there some sports where maybe the conversation should be a little more intense than in other sports?

Patel: I think what we'll see is that the conversations may be sport specific, and some may concern the number of athletes tested. At times, it's pretty complicated. It does look like there are, as you know, different weightbearing performance athletes, endurance athletes, or what I'll call burst sports. There will probably be data that will identify certain sports where we may need to pay a bit more attention.

Harrington: What about the contact issues? Damar had a very specific thing, we think, happen to him. Football is a violent, contact-oriented sport, but fortunately we don't regularly see what happened to Damar.

Patel: We're talking about sudden cardiac death, but obviously, contact issues and neurologic evaluation is a whole other topic. That's another big issue that I know many are following, and the NCAA is carefully, too. For Damar, I think we know that it was commotio cordis. At least when that happens, when there's a ball or a trauma to the chest, those things have to be timed just so to actually lead to this event. Thankfully, it's not very frequent, but it can happen.

Harrington: Hockey pucks, baseballs, soccer balls, a helmet to the chest…

Patel: You have to be in a specific cycle of the squeeze. We don't see that very frequently. I do think the evaluation and treatment, hopefully, makes a difference. One thing that we're evolving in the screening world is our imaging; it's getting better. We are not just doing echocardiograms; we are able to do other studies. There's a mix of imaging and other technologies.

Is Screening the Answer?

Harrington: Let's talk about that because screening is the area, I would say, with the most controversy — and a large amount of emotional controversy. Some argue that the data are not good enough to screen, or doctors are saying, "Wait a minute, why are we screening all these kids?" You said you were at your son's high school doing CPR training. How many athletes are at his high school? There are many, and that's a pretty small high school. Big communities, big universities, and the professional sports can afford it. Should we be doing this at the community level?

Patel: There have been some data. The Italians have done standard screening for some time, and it's shown us that if you did echocardiograms in many individuals, you do find some cases that are hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in pathology. The issue is just how much you have to do and the resource utilization. I think as we get to a world where screening studies can happen with smaller technology and AI, that can be democratizing in how we get to athletes.

Harrington: Give an example of that. We were talking outside, you and I, about some of the new stethoscope technology.

Patel: Yes, stethoscopes are going to be one of the examples. We have stethoscopes that have the ability to get sounds and ECG signals, or at least some lead signals.

Harrington: Yes.

Patel: Potentially you can imagine that sound and ECG tracing in an AI environment, at least getting you from "everyone gets a listen with one stethoscope in their gym from their coach," and it goes to the cloud. When there are enough questions, these are the ones that have to go further. Now, that's a big study that has to be carried out; I'm not in any way saying we should do that.

Harrington: The technology is coming.

Patel: We start to see that our ability to rapidly do something to meet our athletes or our patients where they are will happen soon. Remember that the performance curve can vary, but once you have a sound where you can start to say that this is a regular flow murmur vs "I'm worried about this," especially as you mark it with ECG — that's one example.

Smaller imaging is another example. For many years, ECGs have been talked about. There are entire courses that we run looking at ECGs in athletes. Remembering that Aaron Baggish and others are publishing that these individuals are large. When we look at their hearts, we see that they're large, but when you adjust for size, often you can identify that many of them are within what we think are normal. Structurally, there are still many cases where you look at hearts and you're asking, "Is this a thick heart? Is this noncompaction? Is this some pathology?"

That's where you need imaging expertise. I think you have to have those individuals. I'm not advocating screening. I'm advocating studying it and that we should be thinking about the population. I don't see a world where we don't eventually start to really look to prevent those.

Harrington: Right. Whether it's understanding that there are certain risk factors associated with this and we have to dedicate screening resources to those individuals, or if we want to do it more broadly on the population level to understand this with deeper dives into certain individuals, we've got to study it.

Patel: Some of the experts in sports medicine and sports cardiology have been collecting these data for a while. It's time that we are there, because with these events we have the opportunity to share more of these data and maybe raise awareness — not in the teachable moment only — to get others to contribute.

I do believe that long term there's an opportunity. We've seen that. We see that the rates, unfortunately, for marathon runners, where people unfortunately have events, seem to be higher. And we've seen the studies on troponin leaks in these individuals or evidence that there's some effect on the heart from these events. We want people to be able to be long-term healthy.

Early Defibrillation

Harrington: A large amount of work needs to be done. We talked with regard to screening, we've talked about CPR. We really need to have a nation of people who can do hands-only CPR. Let's talk about AEDs, another key part of the chain of survival.

Patel: We have another important study going on, but an important message first: AEDs are critical to survival. We know that CPR is critical, but so is getting people to a defibrillator.

Harrington: Early defibrillation.

Patel: Early defibrillation. Early CPR is one of the biggest markers of making sure we perfuse people to get to early defibrillation, but then you have to get early defibrillation. There's been a huge push in many communities, again, along with AHA and others, to make sure that AEDs are available not only in the US but around the world. We're at ESC and we see the push around the world to get AEDs available. They've come down in size and come down in cost, and that's made it much more accessible. That's really good. They're still not always there.

We've seen really interesting randomized studies with people in some European countries where they have certain areas, just because of the locations, where bystanders will help get an AED  vs randomizing to the EMS truck. They seem better in some of those variations. Chris Granger, at our institution, with Monique Starks, Dan Mark, and others, is doing a study in North Carolina where we're testing different ways to potentially get AEDs in communities. We're randomizing counties to one or two ways of getting AEDs to those individuals.

Harrington: Can you have an app where you just click "Find me an AED"?

Patel: Is there a world where the AED is found or is something bringing you the AED? Are there drones? Are there people driving? Are there ways that an AED is brought to the scene? All of those are going to be critical. It starts with continuing to figure out ways to support the costs of getting AEDs in places. The technology is continuing to evolve.

Harrington: It really is the premedical system stuff that makes the difference. Once EMS arrives with trained individuals who can defibrillate, they can transport you to a medical facility where trained physicians are at. It's that pre-EMS thing that is so critical.

Patel: We talk often about athletes, but cardiac arrest care in general, and the chain of survival with CPR and AEDs, is critical. I still see patients in the CICU at Duke where, unfortunately, the biggest driver, as you just highlighted in that chain of survival, is how rapid we were in that golden hour. In the first 15 minutes, are you getting CPR, are you getting AED? Are you getting to a system?

Harrington: Are you getting a rapid transport?

Patel: Are you getting a neurologic assessment? Are you getting cooled or not? Those are important things.

Harrington: All right. Let's try to wrap this up. Teachable moments, we talked about. One of the things about cases in prominent athletes is that it makes it to the newspaper and then it raises awareness. There is a drawing inference from a small group of cases to the broader societal issues. That's an important topic.

We've talked about possible screening options, identifying at-risk individuals and high-risk individuals. A large amount of data has already been accumulated, but there is more work to be done. We focused on how to use those teachable moments to really influence the chain of survival, not just for athletes but for society at large.

I love your point about the Bethesda Conference on shared decision-making. Like with everything else, we have to have that two-way conversation: What are the athlete's goals, hopes, and aspirations?

Patel: That group of experts, in addition to shared decision-making, gave us a whole list of conditions that we should be aware of and the cutpoints of where we think normal and not normal live for athletes. I think that's used by many.

Can we build our systems to make research happen faster for the individuals? These athletes are at colleges that are obviously doing so much to make sure they're okay. The people who are helping with this registry, and others, are going to continue to work to ask whether we can engage them as citizen participants and scientists. I think athletes are going to become some of our best advocates for why you'd want to know about yourself and how to perform CPR.

Harrington: I love the concept of citizen scientists, that we all have an obligation to contribute to the evidence base because we all want to use that evidence.

This has been a terrific conversation. I've been joined by my good friend, Dr Manesh Patel from Duke University. I hope you've enjoyed our discussion here at the ESC. We have been taking a little break from the science going on around us to talk about sudden cardiac death in athletes. It really does have implications for broader societal concepts.

Thanks for joining us here on | Medscape Cardiology, from Amsterdam.

Robert A. Harrington, MD, is the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine and provost for medical affairs of Cornell University, as well as a former president of the American Heart Association. He cares deeply about the generation of evidence to guide clinical practice. When not focusing on medicine, Harrington dreams of being a radio commentator for the Boston Red Sox.

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