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updated: 10/25/2013 4:20 PM

Downers Grove doctor screens Naperville students' hearts

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A couple thousand students at Naperville North High School have spent four minutes on massage chairs over the past two days, undergoing a "quick, simple and painless" test for potentially life-threatening heart conditions that could cause sudden cardiac arrest if unnoticed and untreated.

The test is an EKG, which uses small, disc-shaped electrodes attached to the chest, arms and legs to monitor the heart's electrical pulses for irregularities or signs of disease.

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The Young Hearts for Life program founded by Dr. Joseph Marek, a cardiologist with an office at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, is leading the testing charge in Naperville and throughout the west and south suburbs.

Thousands of high school students already have been screened since Marek started Young Hearts for Life in 2006. In fact, the largely volunteer-run program expects to test its 100,000th person in January at Montini Catholic High School in Lombard.

"We've identified hundreds of kids who have life-threatening cardiac conditions," Marek said.

People are becoming more aware of the need for preventive cardiac screening, he said, thanks partially to the state's Sudden Cardiac Arrest Prevention Act passed this summer, which requires schools to post information on their websites informing student-athletes and their parents about the nature and symptoms of these heart problems.

But Young Hearts for Life makes testing available to all high schoolers, not just those who play sports.

"This is made open for all the students because they're all physically and athletically active in gym class, club sports, school sports," Marek said. "From that standpoint, they all carry some risk."

If an EKG reveals potential for a problem, the student's parents will be notified and encouraged to seek follow-up testing at a primary care physician or cardiologist. Marek said the test can reveal common causes of sudden cardiac arrest such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, in which a portion of the heart muscle is thickened; WPW or Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which creates abnormal electrical pathways between different parts of the heart; and long QT or short QT syndromes, which are types of irregular heartbeats.

Volunteers trained for 90 minutes on operation of EKG machines have been working 20 testing stations using massage chairs in Naperville North's gym, testing students during a few minutes of they physical education classes.

"If you know how to use a cellphone we can teach you how to do an EKG," Marek said. "Volunteers can perform it with the same degree of accuracy that you can have done at a doctor's office."

Next week, the program will head to Naperville Central to test another couple thousand students at a rate of about 1,200 a day.

While the conditions that cause sudden cardiac arrest are complicated, Marek's message to students about these diseases is simple.

"They exist," he said. "They could be entirely without any symptoms, they can prevent a threat to health and can be pretty readily identified."

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