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posted: 9/3/2014 1:01 PM

Free cardiac screenings are saving young lives

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  • Volunteers help the Young Hearts for Life screenings at area high schools, such as this screening at Benet Academy in Lisle in 2013.

    Volunteers help the Young Hearts for Life screenings at area high schools, such as this screening at Benet Academy in Lisle in 2013.

  • Students at Batavia High School were screened by Young Hearts for Life in May.

    Students at Batavia High School were screened by Young Hearts for Life in May.

By Janice Youngwith
Daily Herald Correspondent

Elgin High School Principal Jerry Cook is on a mission to ensure all 2,500 Elgin High students have an opportunity to be screened for signs of heart problems this month.

With nearly 70 percent of the Elgin High students of Hispanic origin, Cook says reaching out to parents, raising awareness of cardiac risk and identifying those teens at risk is vital. Hispanics face a higher risk for cardiovascular disease that the general population, according to the American Heart Association.

"We're very excited to bring the Young Hearts for Life electrocardiogram screening to all students," says Cook, who notes it was the sudden cardiac death of Elizabeth Kunce, a 22-year-old Elgin High graduate which is the impetus behind this year's first-time free screening opportunity.

As the youngest of three Kunce sisters who grew up in Elgin and played varsity volleyball, the Elgin High alum (Class of 1999) died suddenly of an undetected heart condition just months shy of her college graduation.

"The nine years since Beth's death have been heart wrenching, confusing and difficult for those of us close to her," says Tracy Kunce, eldest of the surviving Kunce sisters.

"We lost Beth to the No. 1 killer of women -- heart disease. A sudden cardiac event led to her death, just a short time before she could receive her degree in recreational therapy."

The Young Hearts for Life screening, set for Sept. 11-12, is funded in part by the Elizabeth Grace Kunce Memorial, operated by the Kunce family, including Beth's parents, Tom and Chris, and her sisters, Tracy and Lori. Money is raised for the fund through events such as the "EKGs for EGK" golf outing.

Advocate Sherman Hospital also is helping to fund the screening, which will include a free electrocardiogram to identify students at risk for sudden cardiac death.

Young Hearts for Life offers the screenings at high schools throughout the suburbs. To date, the Young Hearts for Life cardiac screening program, the largest program of its kind in the United States, has provided screening electrocardiograms for more than 110,000 suburban students for conditions that cause sudden cardiac death.

"Approximately 2 percent of those screened have electrocardiogram findings which raise red flags for potential problems relating to sudden cardiac death," says Dr. Joseph C. Marek, clinical cardiologist and senior medical director of the cardiopulmonary service with Advocate Medical Group who in 2006 founded the Young Hearts for Life program.

"Of those identified as 'at risk,' hundreds have been found to have life-threatening conditions including a thickening of the heart muscle known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, Long QT syndrome, Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome, Brugada syndrome and arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia," says Dr. Marek, who is responsible for overseeing interpretation of all screening electrocardiograms and providing training to physician colleagues, clinical staff and program volunteers.

According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the No. 1 killer for all Americans. Those of Hispanic ancestry face even higher risks of cardiovascular diseases because of high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

Experts say sudden cardiac death victims often appear healthy with no known heart disease or other risk factors. Sudden cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack, which occurs when the blood supply to a part of the heart muscle is blocked.

"Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when electrical impulses in the heart become rapid or chaotic, which causes the heart to suddenly stop beating," explains Dr. Marek.

While the screening exam does detect up to 60 percent of those at risk, it isn't perfect. Dr. Marek says the biggest challenge is reaching each and every child.

"Whether they are active in high school sports, club sports, enjoy running for fitness, are into dance, cheerleading, marching band or other recreational activities, every teen is active and it's vital to screen every single one," he states. "You never know what the one child who misses the screening may have become had a heart problem been identified before it was too late."

Using trained community volunteers to help administer the low-cost, highly efficient screening program for students and athletes, the goal of Young Hearts for Life is to provide community education about sudden death in young adults and to help schools prepare to deal with cardiac arrest in one occurs.

Nearly 100 trained volunteers help facilitate each screening -- all completing a mandatory 90-minute training to learn skills necessary to administer the on-site ECG. Physicians interpret all screening results.

For more information about the Elgin High School screening program, visit the YH4L website at or call (630) 785-4366

Participation is voluntary and parental permission required for students wishing to be screened.

Area Young Hearts for Life screening events

Young Hearts for Life offers screenings at nearly 30 Northwest suburban high school and college campuses on a rotating every-other-year schedule. On tap for the 2014-2015 school year, are screening exams at the following locations:


Elgin High School Sept. 11-12

Benedictine University Sept. 19

Glenbard South High School Oct. 2-3

Barrington High School Oct. 30-31

Christ The King Jesuit College Prep Nov. 6-7

St. Charles North High School Nov. 20


Neuqua Valley High School (main campus) Jan. 8-9

Neuqua Valley High School (freshman campus) Jan. 22-23

West Aurora High School Feb. 12-13

Metea Valley High School Feb. 19-20

Waubonsie Valley High School March 5-6

Benet Academy April 10

Maine East High School April 16-17

For information contact Young Hearts for Life at or call (630) 785-4366.

Four-step chain of survival

• Early access to emergency response (calling 9-1-1).

• Early CPR, providing lifesaving cardiopulmonary resuscitation when needed.

• Early defibrillation, having proper equipment and being trained to use it when needed.

• Early advanced cardiovascular care.

Source: American Heart Association

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