Football and lacrosse player Konrad Mueller was annoyed that he had to have an electrocardiogram at Libertyville High School his freshman year.
He didn't want to interrupt his busy school day, and didn't see the point of the test, given that he was perfectly healthy.
"I didn't really want to take the test, said Mueller, now 17. "But it saved my life.
Mueller's test, also known as an ECG or EKG, came up abnormal and follow-up tests confirmed he had a potentially fatal heart condition called Long QT Syndrome. Had he not detected it, he could have been one of the young people who each year dies unexpectedly from an undetected heart problem.
Just last week, a high school student collapsed and died while playing basketball with his friends on the South Side of Chicago.
"I was definitely blessed to be able to find (the Long QT Syndrome) … because over 30 percent of people who have it die, said Mueller, who was forced to drop out of sports and now takes medication to regulate his heart rate.
More than 7,000 children die of sudden cardiac arrest each year, according to the Oakbrook Terrace-based Midwest Heart Foundation, but most children are never screened for heart risks during routine physicals.
That's led private organizations like Midwest Heart to step in and join with schools and suburban hospitals to offer the painless, 2-minute procedure at no cost to thousands of suburban teens, including, this fall, Glenbard East High School in Lombard, Benedictine University in Lisle, Barrington High School and St. Charles North High School.
Students in other schools will be tested in the spring semester, including Benet Academy in Lisle, West Aurora High School, Metea Valley High School in Aurora, Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora and Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville.
Another organization, Max Schewitz Foundation, offers tests at Libertyville High School this week and at Grayslake North and Central high schools, among others, in the spring.
The tests are not mandatory, and a parental consent form is required.
Cardiologist Dr. Joe Marek of Midwest Heart Specialists started giving screening tests in suburban high schools in 2006, administering about 3,000 tests that year. This year, he and his partners expect they'll do 20,000. To date, they've done more than 50,000.
Not part of annual physical
The EKG is not part of the routine school physical because it's not considered a "standard of care in the United States and, therefore, is rarely covered by health insurance, Marek said.
He and others have tried to lobby insurance companies to change their policy but to no avail.
"This will gradually become a standard of care. There's a growing recognition in the cardiology and medical community that these tests are needed, and more doctors are adding them on to their physicals … but one of the stumbling blocks is always that this is something that's not paid for by insurance, Marek said. "In the meantime, we'll try to do what we can.
Abnormal readings are rare about 40 of every 2,000 tests, Marek estimates. And the chance of a "false positive is around 2 percent, or another 40 out of 2,000. Even though that's low by most medical testing standards, a false-positive can frighten a family and lead to follow-up tests that ultimately conclude the child's heart is healthy.
Even with a large corps of parent volunteers administering the EKGs and doctors from the Midwest Heart Foundation's Young Hearts 4 Life program donating their time to evaluate the results, it will cost Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington between $12,000 and $15,000 to test the students at Barrington High School later this month, hospital spokesman Michael Deering said.
Multiplied by all the schools, the investment is substantial, not including costs of follow-up testing where needed.
Yet, "it's money well spent, Deering said, noting that the hospital's focus is on preventive care. "If it avoids one single tragedy, then it's well worth it.
Lake Bluff mom Mary Beth Schewitz agrees, since such a screening might have saved her 20-year-old son, Max, who died suddenly from an undetected heart condition in 2005.
"Max was an adventurous kid, said Schewitz, recalling the nightmare of getting the phone call about Max being rushed to the hospital. "I never knew the greatest risk to him was inside his heart.
The Max Schewitz Foundation now helps arrange EKG tests at high schools in the northern suburbs through a program called Screens for Teens. They've performed 2,600 free tests to high schoolers this month alone.
There are even plans to start a Screens for Teens at Your Door program, where people can have someone come over to their house and test them for $15.
Schewitz is certain Screens for Teens has saved lives. One example is two Vernon Hills High School siblings who were tested on a Wednesday, saw a doctor Thursday, and were on heart medication by Friday night.
"There are loads of kids like this, Schewitz said. "We find kids with potentially fatal cardiac conditions. Whether they're going to die tomorrow or never suffer the consequences of it, we don't know.
Dr. Raymond Kawasaki, a cardiologist and electrophysiology specialist at Advocate Good Shepherd, said preventive tests like these are important to identify silent killers like Sudden Cardiac Death and that goes for both adults and children.
"Some people believe as long as your not symptomatic, it's not necessary to do these tests on patients, and that's not correct, he said. "It's very important.
Even though insurance companies aren't on board yet, Marek applauds the attention suburban parents are giving to the cause.
"This is something we can do something about, and we can all pull together and we can make a difference, Marek said.