SCD in athletes: Lessons from high-profile cases


Recorded Aug. 26, 2023. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Robert A. Harrington, MD: I’m here with my good friend, Manesh Patel, from Duke University. We’re at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) congress in Amsterdam, and I pulled Manesh into the studio for a conversation about something that’s really topical right now: sudden cardiac death in athletes.

What I hope to do [in this interview] is really pick Manesh’s brain on how we are thinking about this. Are we going to think about treatment issues? Are we going to think about prevention issues? Are we thinking about screening? We’ll try to make it practical.

Dr. Manesh Patel is chief of cardiovascular medicine at Duke University and also the director of the Duke Heart Center. Manesh, thanks for joining me here.

Bronny James and Damar Hamlin

Manesh R. Patel, MD: Excited to be here, Bob. Always.

Harrington: [Recently,] a news article comes out about the cause of Bronny James’ sudden cardiac death. Let me put this into a bigger societal context.

Last winter, Damar Hamlin, from the Buffalo Bills, suffered a traumatic injury on the field, and with that, had cardiac arrest. He’s back playing football – great to see. You and I are involved with the American Heart Association. He’s been very supportive of our efforts around things like CPR. He’s been terrific. It’s great to see him playing.

We know a little less about Bronny James. The news articles say the cause is both functional and anatomical, and it seems to be congenital, but we don’t have any details beyond this. Let’s not focus on the people; let’s focus on the topic.

Patel: I’m excited that we’re having the conversation. First and foremost, we’re excited that, with what we’ve seen on a national stage, these two individuals are doing well. They survived sudden cardiac death, which is a testament to all the things that we’ll talk about.

There are many important questions, like, is this increasing? Is this something we can prevent? And what are those things that might be happening to athletes?

Harrington: Can we predict it?

Patel: Right. I think the idea of sudden cardiac death in athletes is really a critical one for us to think about because it does concern participation and what we think about that. There are many experts who’ve been studying this for years that I now get to work with.

Harrington: Tell us a little bit about the kind of things you’ve been doing in this area.

Patel: Even before these events in the COVID era, we were wondering about athletes getting myocarditis, just in general, what do we know about that? People like Aaron Baggish, Kim Harmon, Jonathan Drezner, and others have been studying this.

Harrington: You and I did a show on athletes and COVID-19.

Patel: With the American Heart Association (AHA), the Cornell Foundation, and others, we started the Outcomes Registry for Cardiac Conditions in Athletes (ORCCA). This registry is across the United States, and athletes can sign up.

Harrington: Is it voluntary? Do the schools sign them up?

Patel: The athletes sign up. Team trainers and doctors talk to the athletes. We don’t really know the risks of some of these conditions. There’s a lot of gray area – people with certain conditions that were really interesting; aortas that are dilated in tall people.

Harrington: Long QT.

Patel: Long QT. There are certainly things that we know we should be intervening on and others where participation is a question. All of these we are trying to longitudinally put into the registry and follow them over time.

The second thing is understanding from the last Bethesda Conference that we want shared decision-making. There are going to be conditions where you say, “Look, I think your risk is high. You’ve a family history of sudden cardiac death. You have arrhythmias while you’re exercising.”

Harrington: You have a big, thick heart.

Patel: If you have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, whether you’re an athlete or a 40-year-old adult, we’re going to have the same conversation. I think that holds. There’s a variety or a spectrum where we don’t know. I think the registry is one big step.

Thinking back to when somebody has an event, I would say take the teachable moment with the AHA and others to make sure your communities and your areas have automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and CPR training, and that we get to 100%: 100% response, 100% CPR, 100% defibrillation. I think that’s the first step.


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