University of North Texas cheerleader Skyler Sanders, 21, was a junior at Hays High School when doctors discovered that she had a hole in her heart: officially an atrial septal defect.
She had started having heart palpitations in middle school. She would get short of breath and feel like she needed to sit down. At first she was having one episode every six months; then by high school, she was having about one a month. “They were very random,” Sanders says.
Sometimes palpitations would happen in cheerleading practice, but sometimes they happened when she wasn’t exercising.
She thought she was having anxiety, but her primary care doctor directed her to a cardiologist as soon as she mentioned the shortness of breath.
The cardiologist did an echocardiogram and ultrasound and saw the hole. The defect was enlarging her heart slightly, she says. She also had a leaky mitral valve.
Doctors told her that it wasn’t something she had to fix right away, but she says, she was told she needed to get it fixed before she turned 24 because that would be when problems would start arising. If left untreated, it could have caused a stroke or congestive heart failure.
Sanders decided to have surgery in May 2017 and was back cheering again two months later. Doctors were able to minimize scarring and shorten recovery time by making incisions in between her ribs instead of cracking her chest open.
Sanders’ heart problem is one of the problems that doctors can detect through screening. On Aug. 4, Heart Hospital of Austin will be offering free screenings for teens age 14-18. During the screening, technicians will do an echocardiogram and an EKG to look for heart defects such as atrial and ventricular septal defects and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — that’s the one you sometimes hear about in seemingly healthy athletes. It can lead to a dangerous arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death.
The screenings are a great resource to the community, says Dr. Faraz Kerendi, surgical director of the Heart Valve Clinic at Heart Hospital of Austin and cardiothoracic surgeon at Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgeons. “It allows young student athletes, young students in general, to find conditions that may otherwise be totally asymptomatic that could be life threatening. This allows them to get an echocardiogram, and an EKG, basically at no cost to them, to detect things that could otherwise show up in a bad way.”
The Heart Hospital does screenings two times a year, typically before school starts and in February. Out of those screenings, a few kids get diagnosed with one of these conditions. “For those few, it could be devastating if not discovered,” Kerendi says.
The screenings are for any teenager age 14-18, but it’s especially important for student athletes because of the exertion their hearts go through. Sometimes, if something is found, teenagers can continue doing their sport, like Sanders did. Sometimes, though, they might need to switch to a less-strenuous sport.
One of the people who will be doing a screening on Aug. 4 is Sanders’ sister Ryan, who plays volleyball. Even though Sanders’ condition is not genetic, Ryan still wanted to get screened and Sanders’ helped Ryan by signing her up.
Sanders wishes that she had taken advantage of the screening program when she was in high school. She might have chosen to do her surgery in high school instead of waiting. “That would have been easier,” she says.
Kerendi wants to remind teens and their parents that you don’t have to think something could be wrong to do a screening.
“There are conditions that are unknown and asymptomatic, and people shouldn’t assume that everything is fine,” he says. “You never know when one of these things could cause a problem until it does.”
Free heart screenings
8 a.m. to noon Aug. 4
Heart Hospital of Austin, 3801 N. Lamar Blvd.
Call ahead at 512-478-3627, or visit stdavids.com/youngheart to schedule your screening.