“Helmets For Hearts” Weekend To Raise Awareness Of Sudden Cardiac Death In Student-Athletes

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NEW BRUNSWICK – High school football stadiums throughout Middlesex County will be dressed in red and white for one weekend this fall to raise public awareness in the battle against a detectable but often silent killer known as HCM, or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart condition that last year claimed the lives of two central New Jersey student-athletes.

Sponsored by Saint Peter’s Healthcare System, in tandem with the Home News Tribune of East Brunswick and the Greater Middlesex Conference Football Coaches Association, “Saint Peter’s Healthcare System’s Helmets for Hearts’’ weekend will feature 12 games on Friday, Oct. 1, and Saturday, Oct. 2, as well as a “Helmets for Hearts’’ kickoff match-up on Sept. 24 between Edison and South Brunswick high schools.

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Kittim Sherrod, a football star from Edison, and Brandon James, a popular senior from South Brunswick, died eight months apart last year from HCM after going into sudden cardiac arrest during athletic competition. Sherrod died during a track and field practice. James died during a recreation league basketball game.

The mission of “Helmets for Hearts” is not only to spread the word about HCM but to encourage families with teenage athletes to test their youngsters for this silent threat.

As part of that effort, and in memory of the fallen teens, every player in the Greater Middlesex Conference will wear heart-shaped emblems on their football helmets during all 12 games scheduled for the weekend of Friday, Oct. 1, and Saturday, Oct. 2, as well as for the “Helmets for Hearts’’ marquee contest between Edison and South Brunswick.

In addition, all coaches will don red baseball caps, referees will wear red wristbands, and each stadium will be decorated with red and white balloons and streamers during the games. Meanwhile, spectators will be encouraged to wear red or white clothing. Schutt Reconditioning of Easton, Pa., has donated the red helmet decals.

Every contest also will be preceded by a moment of silence for Sherrod and James, while public service announcements regarding HCM awareness and cardiovascular health will be broadcast before each kickoff and during the games.

A special ceremony involving the families of both boys will be held at midfield prior to the Edison-South Brunswick game. State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, the author of legislation designed to heighten HCM awareness and help prevent sudden cardiac death in student-athletes, will join the families for a ceremonial coin toss prior to the Edison-South Brunswick game. Millers Rentals is donating an arch of red balloons to adorn the stadium entrance and a Skytracker search light to illuminate the evening sky.

“Saint Peter’s Healthcare System’s Helmets for Hearts’’ weekend will also feature the distribution of special inserts into every game program that include information about HCM and commemorate the lives of Sherrod and James.

The Saint Peter’s University Hospital Community Mobile Health Unit will be on hand to offer free blood pressure and blood sugar screenings to any member of the public who attends the following games:

  • South Brunswick at Edison, 7 p.m., Friday, Sept. 24
  • South Plainfield at New Brunswick, 7 p.m., Friday. Oct. 1
  • Manasquan at Metuchen, 1 p.m., Saturday Oct. 2

”Saint Peter’s Healthcare System’s Helmets for Hearts’’ weekend is timed to coincide with Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Month, held every October to publicize, in part, the dangers of HCM, which occurs in one in 500 people, or more than 600,000 people in the United States.

HCM warning signs can include palpitations, a racing heart, dizziness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, fainting and chest discomfort, but symptoms do not always appear.

HCM usually surfaces during or after adolescence and is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in people under the age of 30. Athletes comprise 20 percent of all HCM-related deaths in the United States. Young black males are particularly at risk, accounting for about half of all sudden cardiac deaths in athletes, according to Lisa Salberg, CEO and founder of the Hibernia-based Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association, a nonprofit group.

The good news, however, is that HCM, if detected early, can be combated, enabling hundreds of young lives to be saved.

Justin and Ryan Miller, both Monroe High School graduates, are brothers who were diagnosed with HCM. Ryan, who received a heart transplant in 2008, miraculously returned to the soccer field to help lead his team to a conference championship. Justin, the Home News Tribune’s 2005 Boys Soccer Player of the Year, was able to receive a pacemaker to regulate his heart. Both will be in attendance to take part in HCM-awareness ceremonies prior to the start of the Monroe-Piscataway game on Oct. 1.

The son of Mike Wolfthal, Greater Middlesex Conference Football Committee chairman and athletics director at Bishop Ahr High School in Edison, was diagnosed with HCM six years ago. Wolfthal’s son, Jeffrey, was a promising Bishop Ahr student-athlete but was ordered to cease all athletic activity upon his diagnosis with HCM. Jeffrey Wolfthal credits early detection with saving his life. The Wolfthal family will be recognized prior to the Oct. 2 game between Bishop Ahr and J.F. Kennedy high schools.

“Saint Peter’s Healthcare System’s Helmets for Hearts” weekend will include the following games and participating schools:

Sept. 24

  • Edison at South Brunswick, 7 p.m.

Oct. 1

  • Edison at Sayreville, 7 p.m.
  • Woodbridge at East Brunswick, 7 p.m.
  • South Plainfield at New Brunswick, 7 p.m.
  • Piscataway at Monroe, 7 p.m.
  • Colonia at Perth Amboy, 7 p.m.
  • J.P. Stevens at Old Bridge, 7 p.m.
  • Middlesex at Highland Park, 7 p.m.

Oct. 2

  • Spotswood at Dunellen, 1 p.m.
  • South River at Cardinal McCarrick, 1 p.m.
  • Manasquan at Metuchen, 1 p.m.
  • Bishop Ahr at J.F. Kennedy, 1 p.m.
  • Carteret at North Brunswick, 2 p.m.

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