Heart of the Matter

September 21, 2016

This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Training & Conditioning.


Last year, Clarence Kennedy, a freshman wrestler for Adrian College, received a routine heart test as part of the athletic department’s “Student Heart Check” program. However, his results were anything but routine. The exams revealed he had a significant congenital heart condition that could have led to cardiac arrest if left untreated. Soon after, Kennedy underwent open-heart surgery to fix the defect, and he is set to return to the mat this winter.

The discovery that potentially saved Kennedy’s life was made possible because of Adrian’s comprehensive heart testing program, a rarity among NCAA Division III schools. Spurred by a cardiac incident involving an Adrian football player in 2010, the Student Heart Check initiative began in 2014. 

At the testing, all incoming Adrian student-athletes undergo an echocardiogram, vascular ultrasound, and an electrocardiogram. Adrian’s Head Athletic Trainer Jamie Fetter, MS, ATC, and his staff organize the Student Heart Checks, which includes sending e-mails to athletes and coaches, scheduling individual testing times for every athlete, finding space for the event, and setting up tables and equipment. Wimbledon Health Partners, a Florida-based medical device company, supplies the equipment and staff needed to conduct the tests.

“We complete the evaluations over a four-day period and organize them by sport,” says Fetter. “This year, we did 467 tests and had about 10 cases where we had to make an appointment with a cardiologist to further examine an athlete.

“Our administration has been very supportive of the Student Heart Check,” he continues. “Even though other colleges feel it requires too much extra work to set up, I think the potential to save somebody’s life is worth it.”

A noteworthy feature of the Student Heart Check program is that the tests are provided free of charge to Adrian student-athletes. Wimbledon Health Partners receives “usual and customary” payments from health insurance companies, according to Fetter. This means that athletes with health insurance pay nothing out of pocket, and those without coverage can still be tested since the medical company eats the cost.

Another reason Adrian’s Student Heart Check program stands out is because the NCAA and leading cardiac and sports medicine organizations do not support mandatory heart testing for athletes. As detailed in the 2016 “Interassociation Consensus Statement on Cardiovascular Care of College Student-Athletes,” the heart tests can occasionally come back with false positives, which can cause a lot of anxiety for athletes and their families. A follow-up visit with a cardiologist can usually clarify whether the results were actually wrong, but the potential for a false positive is enough for some to say that heart testing is not worth the time and money.

On the other side of the argument is research that shows how susceptible athletes can be to heart problems. “Athletes are three times more likely to experience cardiac issues than non-athletes, and 80 percent of athletes who have sudden cardiac death show no symptoms until cardiac duress occurs,” says Fetter.

It’s for this reason that Fetter believes Adrian should continue the Student Heart Check program. “Looking at just medical history, physical exams, and past ailments is not sufficient,” he says. “Even if you do all that, you still have athletes that pass away from heart abnormalities.”

For implementing the Student Heart Check program, and the role it played in saving Kennedy’s life, Adrian received the 2016 Chris Keenist Award from the Charlie Sanders Foundation, an organization based in Michigan that educates the public about hidden heart problems and funds youth heart screenings. The Chris Keenist Award is given annually to an individual or group that raises awareness about cardiac health.

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