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Bill Aims To Prevent More Indiana Student Athlete Deaths With Better Screening

A football field at night.

According to data, sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death among athletes, with Black men at particularly high risk. (Lauren Chapman/IPB News)

An effort to prevent the sudden death of student athletes is making progress in the Indiana General Assembly. Parents of children who have died after suddenly collapsing are pressing for a law that offers more protections for kids participating in physically demanding activities at school.

LaPorte parent Julie West's son died suddenly after collapsing on a football field in 2013 because of an unknown heart condition. 

She says before his death, she didn't know about the risks of sudden cardiac arrest; her son passed every physical. 

"I thought the thing that I would have to worry about was him getting his driver's license, not the fact that his heart was in the condition that it was," she said.

Now, a bill she and medical experts are supporting at the statehouse would require schools to take additional steps to educate parents, evaluate students, and train coaches to identify symptoms. Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading medical cause of death for student athletes.

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House Bill 1040 says schools have to provide information sheets to families about the risks and warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest, and tell them about echocardiogram, or EKG, testing which can detect potentially fatal heart conditions. 

Students would also need to get an EKG before participating in certain physical activities like sports or marching band, or opt-out with a parent's consent. 

The bill also says school officials, like coaches, referees, and band leaders, need training on the signs and symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest, and that students will be pulled from activity if they show symptoms. Parents would then have to receive information on the risks before consenting to their child returning to the field or play.

A House committee approved the bill this week, but more changes are likely as lawmakers continue to debate how best to inform parents and screen kids. 

Indiana's legislation is one of several efforts across the country aimed at improving physical examinations of children involved in sports or other strenuous extracurriculars. Several states have already passed laws named after children who have suffered or died from sudden cardiac arrest. 

Two parents from Texas, Scott and Melody Stephens, also testified in support of Indiana's bill. They lost their son to sudden cardiac arrest in 2012, and joined advocacy efforts to bring awareness to the issue and screen students across the country.

West also started a foundation after her son's death, called Play for Jake. She says her son's death saved her daughter's life, after it prompted a screening that revealed she too, had a heart condition. According to its website, The Play For Jake Foundation has helped more than 3,700 students receive heart screenings.

Contact reporter Jeanie at jlindsa@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @jeanjeanielindz.

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