January 27, 2020

LORENZEN | Why The American Heart Association Believes My Life is Not Worth Living

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I am too expensive to be alive, says the organization tasked with protecting my life. According to the American Heart Association, the “logistics, manpower, financial and resource considerations” of saving my life are not worth it. While admittedly biased, I must respectfully disagree with this adjudication of my value as a human. Where my disagreement with the AHA loses any semblance of respect is in its treatment of others who did not receive the same luck which I did.

My life was saved by blind luck. As I galavanted about the halls of Ransom Everglades Middle School on a Spring day during the 7th grade, my mother stopped home for a quick lunch and saw an advertisement on television. The commercial advertised a free electrocardiogram screening at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. An EKG maps out the electrical activity of the heart through the placement of electrodes on one’s skin, and is a painless, quick and (at many hospitals) free test. I had never suffered from any cardiac symptoms, but my overprotective mother decided to take me in for the test anyway.

A week later, I was informed that I had Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome: a condition which causes one’s heart to beat abnormally quickly. The condition is often relatively benign and does not pose an enormous statistical risk; however, it is known to cause sudden cardiac events for young people who participate in high intensity sports (as I did). Those frequent news stories of a student dying suddenly on the practice field with no prior warning are often from WPW or similar conditions. A few weeks later, a cardiac ablation surgery fully cured my condition.

I got lucky. My life was saved by a random EKG screening which I had absolutely no reason to take. That is why I have a responsibility to write this column — so many young people never receive that stroke of blind luck.

Luck didn’t save Dwyane Mitchell, a 19-year-old high school senior from my hometown of Miami. He died of undetected WPW two weeks before his graduation in 2015.

Luck didn’t save Breanna Vergara, an 11-year-old, also from Miami, who died of undetected WPW in 2014 after collapsing in her ballet class.

Every three days, a U.S. student athlete dies of sudden cardiac arrest. It is the leading killer of U.S. student athletes. Every month, I know I will find a news article from somewhere around the country of a young person dying unexpectedly of an undetected heart condition. I read all those stories. Almost every single child could have been saved by an EKG screening. A painless, five minute and often free test could have prevented their death, and yet, few people even know what an EKG is. They are not informed of the life-saving impact of these tests by their healthcare providers or their schools. EKG screenings should be mandatory for all students in U.S. public schools in the same way immunizations or yearly physicals are. Young people should not die of easily treatable or even curable heart conditions.

The American Heart Association disagrees. They argue that “the logistics, manpower, financial and resource considerations make such a substantial program inapplicable to the U.S. healthcare system.” Without their support, all legislative efforts to enact such change at the federal level remain crippled, leaving EKG testing a proposal which few legislators have ever heard of, let alone considered. The AHA concluded that it would be too expensive to save the lives of 19-year-old Dwyane and 11-year-old Breanna. The AHA concluded that my life was not worth saving. They were supposed to be my advocate in cardiac care, but instead, I had to rely on dumb luck to save my life.

For years, I have fought to raise awareness on this issue, giving speeches, working with the hospital and creating online content to inform the public. I have failed miserably. I was reminded of that as I read the obituary of Paul Benton Fisher-York ‘22, who passed away last month of a “previously undiagnosed heart condition.” I never had the honor of knowing Paul, but my heart is broken over this loss and my sincerest condolences go out to his family. While I do not know if EKG testing could have saved Paul’s life, I do know that EKG screenings are the best way to detect unknown heart conditions and could save the lives of so many young people like him.

I am tired of fighting a battle against  my supposed healthcare ally. I am tired of seeing the lives of innocent young people with bright futures end prematurely due to coldly hyper-rationalized financial and logistical considerations. I am tired of the AHA’s morally bankrupt abdication of its responsibility to advocate on behalf of those afflicted with heart conditions. I am tired of having a surgically repaired heart which breaks like clockwork each month when I open a newspaper and see one of those stories.

As the AHA has failed in living up to its mission to “be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives,” I urge each and every member of the Cornell community to assume their responsibility. Get an EKG. Tell your loved ones to get one. Ask your healthcare provider and school why they are not mandatory. Reach out to your local legislature. Do not allow more innocent young people to die prematurely due to the inaction of the AHA.

Andrew Lorenzen is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at alorenzen@cornellsun.com. When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this semester.