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South Africa, Sport

Cut Short: James Taylor’s truncated career a reminder to check up on matters of the heart

Cut Short: James Taylor’s truncated career a reminder to check up on matters of the heart

While James Taylor’s heart condition might be rare, it should serve as a reminder for both professional sporting bodies and us ordinary folk just how important regular screening is, especially since heart conditions are far too often something we associate with older people. BY ANTOINETTE MULLER.

He won’t believe it now, but James Taylor is one of the lucky ones. On Tuesday, the bright young star was forced to retire from cricket at the age of 26 due to a rare heart condition known as ARVC (arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy).

While it is estimated that only about 10,000 people in the United Kingdom (where Taylor is from) suffers from either ARVC or a similar condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM, also known as hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy), he is not the first prominent player to have suffered from this condition in recent years. Fabrice Muamba, who suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch in an FA Cup tie at Tottenham in 2012, has a similar illness. In South Africa, Cornal Hendricks is also reported to be suffering from a heart condition, but the South African Rugby Union has remained mum on exactly what it is that is plaguing him.

These sportsmen are the lucky ones. It might not feel like that to them when they have to bring their careers to an abrupt halt just as they are about to hit their prime, but they are. ARVC cannot be cured, it his inherited and caused by a mutation of one or more genes. Most often, people aren’t diagnosed until much later in life, but it carries a huge risk for sportsmen. Abnormal heart rhythms, breathlessness, fainting, swollen legs/ankles, swelling in the abdomen are all symptoms and those who have the mutation suffer the risk of cardiac arrest on exertion. HCM, on the other hand, is also inherited, but can be made worse by training for sport as it causes the heart muscle to thicken.

For Taylor, this diagnosis might have for the time being “turned his world upside down”, but when it comes to delicate matters of the heart, he can consider himself lucky.

Other athletes have not survived when their conditions went untreated. Cameroon midfielder Marc-Vivien Foé, 28 at the time, fainted during a friendly against Colombia in Lyon in 2003 and died of his condition. Olympic gold medallist gymnast Sergei Grinkov was 28 when he collapsed while training. Hungarian forward Miklos Feher collapsed on the pitch when he was 24 and Norwegian swimmer Alexander Dale Oen was 26 when he collapsed while taking a shower during a training camp.

Taylor’s early diagnosis and the tragic death of the others highlights the importance of the critical role competent and trained medical staff play in the ecosystem of a sports team. A number of sporting bodies have compulsory screening policies – especially at youth level – but these are by no means fool proof. Taylor was only diagnosed because he was under the impression that he simply had a viral infection. Muamba played football for over a decade and nearly died on the pitch before his condition was detected.

Both were in their 20s and were probably screened at a young age, but their genes might have only mutated later on in life, which underscores the need for consistency when it comes to screening.

A number of sporting bodies (the England and Wales Cricket Board being one of them) do have a policy in place that annual screening is required for youth players, but there needs to be a greater drive across the board to make it a requirement for all athletes in all sporting codes to be screened more regularly because even though the problem might be “rare”, the cases that result in death aren’t.

Dr Steve Cox, chief executive of Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) told AllOutCricket: “Every week in the UK there are at least 12 fit and healthy people who die suddenly from undiagnosed cardiac conditions. This is one of the more common causes of death in young people. Eighty percent of those young deaths occur after showing no symptoms, which is why cardiac screening really is important.”

Screening alone will not detect all conditions, though, but by getting screened you are actually helping to aid research which, in the long run, will help others. But where screening fails, adequate pitch-side assistance could save lives. Yet this is lacking too. It took the death of 29-year old rugby league player Danny Jones to see a campaign for defibrillators to be available at every rugby league club in the UK. Jones suffered a cardiac arrest while playing for his team with the post-mortem ruling that it was caused by previously undetected, hereditary heart disease.

With all the awareness surrounding Muamba and just how important a defibrillator was in saving his life, the notion that these are not more easily accessible seems almost archaic. But defibrillators are expensive, costing anything from R17,000 upwards. Muamba’s survival and Jones’ death led to a number of campaigns to raise funds to have this equipment and sporting clubs and in public spaces, but in South Africa, we’ve not even started to think about having the conversation about their life-saving potential.

But athletes are not alone in this fight. More pertinently, the focus on heart conditions (rare, inherited or lifestyle related) should serve as a reminder to all of us ordinary folk to get checked out, as soon as we can. Heart conditions and issues are things that most of us associate with older people, but they do occur in younger people too. And in most cases, they could have been prevented. The causes of sudden cardiac death in young people vary, but about two-thirds of the time, death is due to a heart abnormality.

As humans, we do not want to consider our transience too often. It is only when we are directly confronted with it that we are prompted into action, despite many other subtle signs frequently reminding us of our fragility. But when it comes to matters of the heart, issues might not be as rare as we think, it might just be that they are far too rarely detected. DM

Photo: James Taylor of England plays a shot during the one day exhibition match between the Prime Minister’s XI and the English cricket team at Manuka Oval in Canberra, Australia, 14 January 2015. EPA/LUKAS COCH AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY

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