Specialist: Heart condition that resulted in Federal Way football player's death is easy to detect

EVERETT, Wash. -- Darla Varrenti wants everyone to know how to help in an emergency.

In 2004, at the age of 16, her son, Nicholas, went into cardiac arrest and died in his sleep.

“That’s when we found out that he had a heart condition and it was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. They call it HCM for short,” says Darla.

It’s the same condition the King County medical examiner says killed 16-year-old Allen Harris on Tuesday.  The Federal Way School District says the football player died after participating in a summer conditioning workout.

“Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is one of the leading causes of sudden death in young athletes,” says Dr. Jonathan Drezner, director of UW Medicine Center for Sports Cardiology.

Drezner says HCM is an abnormal enlargement of the heart and it’s prone to lethal arrhythmias.  It can be detected with one simple test.  However, a test, Drezner says, is not typically included in a regular sports physical.

“It can be diagnosed by an EKG. Most athletes with diseases like HCM do not have warning symptoms,” says Drezner.

He encourages parents to have this conversation with their child’s doctor.  And request their young athlete have an EKG every couple of years, between the ages of 14 and 24.

“The reality is the screenings we do don’t really ensure heart safety. So an EKG can do a much better job,”says Drezner.

Treatment of the disease can include modifying activity, but it varies from patient to patient.

Bottom line, knowledge is the key.  That’s why Darla founded the Nick of Time Foundation, in honor of Nicholas.

She travels all around Western Washington, screening kids with a portable EKG.

“We’ve screened over 22,000 kids and we’ve had over 500 that we’ve found have needed a follow-up,” says Darla.

She says it’s not about stopping kids from doing what they love.

“We want to make sure that they are safe to do the things because it’s too late for our family, but we don’t want it to be too late for other families,” says Darla.

If you want to learn more about getting your child screened, Drezner says call 1-206-598-3294 (DAWG).  The Nick of Time Foundation also offers screenings for a $25 donation, less than it costs to buy a pair of sports shoes for your kid.  You can learn more here: https://nickoftimefoundation.org/events/list/

Update: On Thursday, the district answered several questions posed by Q13 on Wednesday. Here they are, in their entirety:

Q: We wanted to ask if there was an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) around at the time of the incident and was it used on the student?
A: There is an AED in the Federal Way Memorial Field office, located near the end of the field where the incident occurred (approx. 100’ away). The AED was not used since the student was responsive while medics were in route.

Q: Some players told Q13 there was no trainer at the conditioning. They said that the coach was there, but no trainer.
As this was not an athletic competition or event where trainers are required or advised, there was no trainer on site. However, there were three (3) coaches supervising the workout, all of whom provided immediate aid and support, and each having current medical response certifications required by the WIAA -- including First Aid/CPR/AED certifications. We have over 20 sanctioned athletic teams and activities at this school and having a trainer at the literally hundreds of trainings, workouts, and practices that occur in all seasons of the year would not be possible.

Q: We thought the rules said that in football they always needed a trainer. Can you clarify this?
A: We have trainers at all football games and most varsity sporting events but they are not required to be at every practice for any sport, including football. This was not football practice, students did not have any football equipment on, nor were there any contact drills. This was a year round conditioning workout, open to all students per WIAA rules.