Nonprofit provides free, reduced cost heart screenings for student athletes

Who We Play For honors high school friend who collapsed on soccer field

SATELLITE BEACH, Fla. – Evan Ernst is this week's Getting Results Award winner.

Ernst, founder of the nonprofit Who We Play For, is recognized for his organization's mission to provide free and reduced-cost cardiac screenings to student-athletes.

Earlier this month, students from Satellite High School crowded a hallway in the gymnasium, waiting their turn for a two-minute test that could save their life. 

Volunteer Heather Cinca started the screening with a series of questions.

"Have you ever experience chest pains while exercising?" she asked students.

Moments later, a monitor was attached to the participant's body in several locations.

"Lay still, you're going to hear a beep and we'll be done," she said.

It's that quick.  

The results get sent off to cardiologists who volunteer their time to review the tests and recommend a follow-up, if needed.

Cinca, like many of the volunteers, has a personal connection to increasing awareness of detectable heart conditions.

Her daughter was diagnosed with heart disease and had a heart transplant. To celebrate the third anniversary of her transplant, the family will host a walk/run on Sunday, Oct. 22 in Cocoa Beach. 

"After we heard about Who We Play For it was an instant moment of that's who we want to raise money for," Cinca said.

According to the NCAA, sudden death from a heart condition is the leading medical cause of death in NCAA athletes and represents 75 percent of all sudden death that occurs during exercise, training or competition.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) in the general population can occur in as many as one in every 500 people. 

Who We Play For has tested more than 95,000 students in seven states. Seventy-one times they've identified children with life-threatening heart conditions that needed immediate medical intervention.

Ernst said that, on average, out of 100 student-athletes tested, two or three will be flagged as needing a follow-up. 

"The problem that Who We Play For is trying to solve is that an EKG for a student-athlete is an afterthought. It's in the fine print of the physical for the Florida High School Athletic Association. Nobody reads the fine print." Ernst said. "The only ones who get an EKG before sports are UCF athletes, Orlando magic Athletes, professional Olympic athletes."

Ernst wants to bring that testing to every athlete.     

He's motivated by the death of one of his high school teammates. Rafael "Rafe" Maccarone collapsed while playing soccer at Cocoa Beach High School in 2007. 

"It's impossible to put to words," Ernst said. "It's the most painful thing you could ever experience, especially when you find out that tragedies like that can easily be prevented."

 Health First sponsored the Brevard County event, allowing every student to get screened for free. Who We Play For relies on sponsorships and donations to keep the program going. At most they can provide the service for $20 a student but Ernst said no student will be turned away. 

"We're ready to go to every single school in the state, we haven't yet because it takes time to get the word out," Ernst said. "We'd love to have some schools reach out to us though."

If you would like to learn how to get Who We Play For to come you your school visit the organization's website for more information.

About the Author:

Paul is a Florida native who graduated from the University of Central Florida. As a multimedia journalist, Paul enjoys profiling the people and places that make Central Florida unique.