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‘I just ignored the signs’ says teen athlete after sudden cardiac arrest, urges heart testing

Christina Hall
Detroit Free Press

Alexander Bowerson took a final exam and went to doctor’s appointment before wrestling practice in mid-December.

At practice, the Memphis High School graduate, now 18, started jogging.

He got tight pain in his chest and hit the floor.

“Then, I was in an ambulance,” he recalled Thursday, remembering being rushed to McLaren Macomb Hospital in Mount Clemens.

The St. Clair County teen didn’t know he went into sudden cardiac arrest or that the cheer coach, Amanda Bobcean, an emergency department nurse, was doing CPR, then used an automated external defibrillator or AED, on him — a combination that saved his life.

A hidden risk of sudden death

And he didn’t know he had a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic disorder that affects about 1 in 500 people and causes the heart muscle to become thicker and stiff, making it hard work properly, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A condition that can lead to sudden death.

More:Not every Michigan school has a machine that could save a student’s life during a cardiac arrest

But for Bowerson, Bobcean’s quick action enabled the rest of his life. He now has an implanted defibrillator that will have to be replaced every so many years and a faces few restrictions, such making sure his heart doesn’t exceed a certain heart rate (if he goes over, his defibrillator “will shock me”) and strenuous weightlifting.

It means attending school this fall at the University of Michigan with a biomedical engineering major and pre-med track, wanting to become a cardiologist, a career shift from attending Western Michigan University and becoming a pilot.

And it means advocating for student-athletes to get their heart checked, as testing isn’t done for this condition during a routine sports physical, and people often don’t even know they have it.

“I hope that everyone’s OK, but if they’re not OK, they now know and they can get help for it,” Bowerson said, “but they still need to go get checked.”

Free screening for students 13-18

Bowerson will be volunteering Aug. 5 at Beaumont Student Heart Check’s event at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. It’s a free screening from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for students ages 13 to 18. To register, go to  It should only take an hour but could bring lifesaving information to youth and their loved ones.

Beaumont Student Heart Check was created in 2007 to prevent sudden cardiac arrest in student athletes, screening more than 20,000 teens and identifying 227 potentially fatal heart conditions, according to Corewell Health System.

Jenn Shea, the program’s manager, said ideally every school and sports team would have an AED, which the American Red Cross said is a device that analyzes the heart’s rhythm and, if necessary, delivers an electrical shock to help the heart re-establish an effective rhythm. The use of the device in conjunction with CPR can save a person’s life.

Sudden cardiac arrest is among the leading causes of death in the U.S., per the American Red Cross, with more than 350,000 people suffering a cardiac arrest this year.

Even though first responders may come quickly, the average response time for them once 911 is called is 8 to 12 minutes, the group states, “and each minute defibrillation is delayed, the odds of survival are reduced about approximately 10%” so having access to an AED and knowing how to use it is critical.

Shea said an AED, which costs $1,500 to $2,000, walks someone through the process, making it a device anyone can use on adults or children. But AEDs and training aren’t mandatory in Michigan, Corewell Health officials said.

‘Not every kid is gonna be saved’

The health system’s program has provided 77 AEDs to schools in Michigan and helps schools achieve MI HEARTSafe status, ensuring on-site AEDs are up to date and staff know how to use them. Shea said 30 to 35 students in the last seven or eight years have been saved in MI HEARTSafe schools because of the plan in place and use of an available AED in time.

Shae said most schools in Michigan do have one, but “they might not have enough of them … Ideally, you want to have the AED present 3 to 5 minutes from the recognition of a cardiac arrest, you want have those pads on that quickly.”

“I do know a number of times a year we have kids that are in school that have a collapse and someone knows what to do and they have the right equipment and it all works out. Not every kid is gonna be saved. Sometimes you can do your best effort and it’s not gonna work out, unfortunately, but most of the time, the best chance is to have the equipment available quickly,” she said.

Bowerson said he believes every school should have an AED and “one (saved) life would be worth the cost.”

More than 300 people between ages 1 and 39 die in Michigan annually from sudden cardiac arrest or another unknown cause that isn’t related to drugs, trauma, suicide, homicide or long illness, according to the MI HEARTSafe website.

Earlier this year, Cartier Woods, a Detroit Northwestern High School boys basketball player, died after suffering cardiac arrest during a Jan. 31 game. The 18-year-old collapsed three minutes after the start of the basketball game, telling a coach he was feeling dizzy. Coach George Tyson performed CPR. As others were preparing to use an AED in place at the school, emergency medical workers arrived and took over.

More:Coaches recall scary scene as Cartier Woods suffered cardiac arrest, rushed to hospital

But someone knowing they have a condition in the first place also is vital, and why Bowerson is encouraging young people to attend the screening or be tested at some point.

Warning signs, but ‘I didn’t say anything’

Bowerson said he had signs as young as in seventh grade, such as slight chest discomfort, and in high school passing out occasionally — like almost faint for a second — “and I didn’t say anything,” but he felt fine after the incidents occurred.

“It sounds foolish of me, but I just ignored the signs,” he said.

He said there is a family member who is suspicious of possibly having hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and there is a genetic factor Bowerson has to cause the condition.

The CDC recommends if you have a family member who died suddenly before age 40 to let your doctor know as you may need to be screened for the condition. Some people get very sick, but many people, especially children, teens and young adults have no or few symptoms and don’t know they have a heart problem.

It suggests that if you have a family history of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, tell your doctor if you have any of these common symptoms. They may not be in the early stages, but develop over time:

  • Feel tired or lack energy
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • Chest pain, especially with physical activity
  • Fainting or feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs or stomach

Christina Hall: Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.

‘I just ignored the signs’ says teen athlete after sudden cardiac arrest, urges heart testing
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