Mobile Heart Screenings Will Target HISD Middle Schoolers

A new study will screen ten thousand Houston middle school students for heart abnormalities that could lead to sudden cardiac death. Researchers at the Texas Heart Institute will use mobile MRI technology to look for the tell-tale signs of heart trouble in young people, with the goal to save lives. Laurie Johnson reports.

The study will begin later this month at Welch Middle School in Southwest Houston and will eventually include about a dozen HISD middle schools and several private schools. Dr. Paolo Angelini is a noted heart specialist at the Texas Heart Institute and will lead the two-year study.

"If we continue what we are doing, which is basically reporting the events of sudden death in kids, specifically in athletes, we'll not solve the problem but just report and complain."

Sudden cardiac death often involves young athletes who show no signs of heart trouble before they collapse and die. Autopsies usually reveal of thick heart muscle or an abnormal flow of blood to the heart.

"We have the capacity now to see ahead of time what the probable cause of catastrophe is going to be and take effective action, which is basically either limiting the exposure to exercise that seems to be the precipitating because in many cases or treat effectively the conditions that can be treated."
 
MRI mobile unitsMiddle school students will volunteer, with permission from their parents, for the heart screenings, which will be painless and take about 15 minutes. This is Texas Heart Institute President Dr. James Willerson.

"There are no needles involved. There is no discomfort whatsoever, but it gives us a precise picture of the heart that would then allow us to council the children and their families, the principal, about the need to help a particular child and to intervene in a way that would be protective and prevent sudden death."
 
The Kinder Foundation has donated $5 million to pay for a mobile MRI facility. Nancy Kinder says taking the technology to the kids is the unique part of the program.

"A lot of these students that they're going to be testing aren't like a lot of other fortunate students who can go into a hospital and have an MRI. So this is a convenience. They're bringing these MRI's to these schools and that's the beauty of this because this is a unique program. No one else has the MRI units that go to the schools."  

Researchers hope to add high school students to the study in five years and would eventually like to be able to offer guidelines for school districts across the country. Officials estimate there have been 70 incidents of sudden cardiac death among young people in Harris County over the past two years. 

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...