Last night, Olympic gold medalist Dana Vollmer was honored by Plymouth Meeting-based 'Simon's Fund' as the first recipient of the Fund's Protect This Heart Award.
Simon's Fund was founded by Darren and Phyllis Sudman, who lost their son Simon due to Long QT Syndrome—the same condition Dana Vollmer was diagnosed with in 2003. The Award honors an individual whose authentic commitment to raising awareness about sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) saves the lives of students.
"I'm honored to be the recipient of the Protect this Heart Award," Vollmer said before the event known as 'Simon's Soiree' at the ACE Center in Lafayette Hill. "I have been in touch with the Sudman family for years now, since before the Olympic Games, and their story and passion has inspired me. Finding out about my heart condition as a child was a shock and it threatened to derail my dreams, but in the end, it gave us the information to keep me safe while I pursued and achieved these dreams."
After her diagnosis with Long QT Syndrome, Vollmer competed—and won gold—at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens for swimming while her mother Cathy sat in the stands, holding an automated external defibrillator (AED), to be used if Dana's heart stopped during an event. The device went unused, and at a follow-up appointment, Vollmer was pronounced free of symptoms of Long QT. Armed with a clean bill of health, she won gold again at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
Vollmer's story inspired the Sudmans, whose lives had also been changed by Long QT Syndrome.
The Sudman Family
Simon Sudman never got to pursue his dreams. At just 14 weeks old, Simon passed away due to Long QT Syndrome. His grieving parents founded Simon's Fund to raise awareness about SCA—the leading killer of student athletes in America.
"When Simon first passed away, we knew we wanted to do something," said Phyllis Sudman. "Ultimately, we decided to create a foundation that would raise awareness. No family should ever have to bury a child."
Aside from honoring Simon's memory, perhaps the Fund's crowning achievement to date is its role in Pennsylvania becoming the first state in the nation to legislate protection for student athletes against potentially lethal cardiac conditions. Signed into law last August, HB 1610 requires:
To date, Simon's Fund has funded over 5,500 screenings for students in Philadelphia area, uncovering 49 conditions that went previously undetected. Each condition discovered is a life potentially saved. While the Sudmans made it clear that their focus is in the Philadelphia area, opportunities have presented themselves nationwide to raise awareness. Last year, the Fund went to Darren's hometown of Cincinnati to perform a screening after a student from Darren's high school passed away due to an undetected heart condition.
"This year, it looks like we're going to do a screening on Final Four weekend in Atlanta," Darren continues. "There's a community down there that's lost two students to SCA in the past year."
The Sudmans would like to see other states follow Pennsylvania's legislative lead—as Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey and Oklahoma have done already. Is it possible that someday, all students will be required to pass a heart screening before playing competitive sports? A study released late last year attempted to answer that question by looking at the financial impact of such an idea.
Combining the cost of mandatory screenings with the low occurrence of undetected heart disease in student-athletes, the study from Tel Aviv Medical Center in Israel suggested that such a plan would cost in excess of $10 million per life saved.
However, the study was accompanied by a commentary from Dr. Antonio Pelliccia of Italy, who suggested that an electrocardiogram—the best medical practice to screen young athletes for cardiac conditions—can be performed as part of a comprehensive health examination for a fraction of the cost the study suggests. In Italy, wrote Dr. Pelliccia, the tests themselves are not performed by cardiologists—although they can be called in if needed.
Enter David Shipon, M.D., F.A.C.C., Chief Medical Officer for Simon's Fund. Dr. Shipon is a preventive cardiologist and co-founder of The Heart Center of Philadelphia, which is affiliated with Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals.
"There's a low incidence of sudden cardiac arrest in children," allows Dr. Shipon. "But in identifying that one kid who could experience that tragedy, we're also finding many kids with hypertension, obesity—risk factors that would lead to heart disease further down the road."
Dr. Shipon calls the $10 million figure per life saved 'grossly overestimated.' More importantly, he adds that with uniform screening, better education and development of guideline-driven standards, organizations like Simon's Fund will make it possible to save the lives of student-athletes at essentially no cost to the consumer—remarkable when compared to the immeasurable cost of a life lost to something that may be preventable.
"When you meet people like Darren and Phyllis who've suffered a tragedy like this, you want to help them create the best model possible to prevent this from happening to another family," says Dr. Shipon. "That's what's needed. That's my passion."
That passion, along with Dana Vollmer's and everyone associated with Simon's Fund, keeps Simon Sudman alive in millions of young hearts. ""Simon's Fund, in my eyes, has become more about the lives we're changing or saving than it has about that tragic night in 2005 when he passed away," says Darren Sudman.
"The impact that our three-month-old son has had is more than most people will have in a lifetime," summarizes Phyllis Sudman. "People say your pride in your kids takes you through every stage of their lives. And I'm so proud."