EDMONDS — On Sept. 13, Matthew Truax sat with his dad at the breakfast table, reading about the milestone reached by Voyager 1, the first spacecraft to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space.
Just five days shy of his 17th birthday, he was a young man coming into his own. He had experienced a growth spurt between his sophomore and junior years, suddenly gaining three inches in height. The transformation left his parents shaking their heads in smiling wonder.
He hadn’t settled on a career path, other than knowing he didn’t want to sit in an office all day working on a computer, said his father, Jerry Truax. “His goals were more immediate.”
Matthew set a goal to earn straight A’s in his junior year, climbing from the steady and predictable-for-him 3.4 GPA of his sophomore year. The academic achievement would put him on the path to join his 19-year-old brother, Michael, at Western Washington University.
Matthew drove off in his 1990 gray Honda that morning on his way to the 7:30 a.m. start of classes at Meadowdale High School.
In his third-period physical education class, Matthew was running the mile on the high school’s track. A classmate noticed Matthew’s pace had slowed. Matthew told him he had leg cramps. Moments later, Matthew collapsed.
About 9:30 a.m., Matthew’s parents got a call from the school saying Matthew had passed out on the track. “I heard background conversations and someone said CPR,” Jerry Truax said.
He turned to his wife, Melinda, and said, “Matthew’s in trouble.”
When they arrived at the high school, paramedics were preparing to take him to Swedish/Edmonds hospital. “By the time they got there, Matthew’s heart stopped again,” his mom said.
Emergency room staff worked for more than an hour trying to revive him. “When they stopped, it was a flat line,” Jerry Truax said of the readout from a heart monitor.
A doctor turned to the couple, who stood nearby watching the efforts to save their son’s life. “He pretty much said, ‘We’ve been doing this for a while,’” Jerry Truax said. “I said, ‘OK, we have to let him go.’”
Sudden cardiac arrest
By that evening, the Truaxes learned that their son, an avid soccer player and snowboarder, had a condition that caused an abnormal thickening of his heart muscle. It created an electrical instability in the heart, which can trigger sudden cardiac arrest.
Sudden cardiac arrest came to wider public attention in the 1990 death of Hank Gathers, who played basketball at Loyola Marymount University.
“I estimate that 100 to 200 young competitive athletes suffer sudden cardiac death each year,” said Dr. Jonathan Drezner, a professor at University of Washington’s Department of Family Medicine and past president of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.
The death of 16-year-old Jackson High School student Nicholas Varrenti in 2004 led to the creation of the Mill Creek-based Nick of Time Foundation. Its mission is to spread awareness of the sudden cardiac arrest, in part through heart screenings conducted in high schools throughout the region.
The group has scheduled a Feb. 5 screening at Meadowdale High School to honor Matthew. Fundraisers are planned to help pay for the screenings at the high school, Melinda Truax said.
Heather Gutierrez, a clinical nurse manager at Swedish/Edmonds, said Matthew Truax’s death hit emergency room staff unusually hard. Many of her coworkers have children the same age, she said. And a number of them have volunteered at Nick of Time events.
“There’s not one of us who doesn’t want to do something in honor of Matthew and for his family to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else in our community,” she said.
The question is what, exactly, are the best next steps to take.
Motivated to act
Some Swedish/Edmonds emergency room staff want to teach CPR to kids, Gutierrez said. Some want to raise money to buy more automated external defibrillators — better known by the three-letter shorthand of AEDs. Some want to sell T-shirts. Some want to volunteer at the Nick of Time heart screening event scheduled next year at Meadowdale High School.
“The hearts of all of us are with the mother, brother and that dad,” Gutierrez said.
The Nick of Time Foundation has donated a backpack-style AED to Meadowdale High School so it can be at the ready during athletic events.
Edmonds School Board member Diana White had known Matthew Truax for years. She was his former Sunday school teacher at Edmonds’ Holy Rosary Church. She said the school district is working with Swedish/Edmonds staff on what steps the district should take, such as whether athletes and perhaps even all students should be required to get an EKG test.
“When you make a requirement, that has a dollar figure associated with it,” White said. “The big hurdle is how you do it.”
Drezner, the UW physician, said his recommendation for every community is to have AEDs in all elementary, middle and high schools. “These devices should be on the walls in every school, just like fire extinguishers, and hope we never have to use either,” he said.
1 in 250 at risk
Sudden cardiac arrest most frequently strikes those between the ages of 12 and 30, Drezner said. Boys and young male athletes are about four times more likely to be affected than their female counterparts. “But that doesn’t mean girls are at zero risk and they shouldn’t consider being screened,” he said.
One of the highest risk groups is teen boys playing high school basketball, he said.
About 1 in every 250 young people has a heart disorder that has some potential for causing sudden cardiac arrest, Drezner said. Even when an electrocardiogram (EKG) test indicates there might be a problem, it doesn’t mean you have a heart condition, he said.
If follow-up tests identify a problem, the treatment may include medication, surgery and, in some cases, modifying physical activity, Drezner said.
Once a community experiences a loss like that of Matthew Truax, it’s going to be on the minds of parents, he said. “You’ll be nervous about it. I don’t want to scare people into thinking that this is reason for their son or daughter not to participate in sports.”
But for specific groups, such as competitive athletes, he and other physicians recommend an EKG screening before they participate. The tests will soon be offered to the public for $50 at the new Sports Medicine Center at Husky Stadium.
Melinda and Jerry Truax say their son had no prior symptoms of heart problems. In fact, he participated in a 90-minute soccer practice the day before he died.
They hope that Matthew’s death will save another’s life.
“If Matthew had an EKG two years ago during his sports physical, I truly believe he’d be alive today,” his mother said.
“We’ll probably spend the rest of our lives talking about sudden cardiac arrest and doing everything we can to save another parent from having to go through this. There are thousands of parents out there, just like us, who think they have this perfectly healthy child.”
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who should have an EKG?
EKGs are strongly recommended for:
•Anyone with a family member with cardiomyopathy or other hereditary cardiac disorder.
Anyone with a family member who suffered sudden cardiac arrest or death before age 40.
Anyone with potential cardiovascular symptoms, such as chest pain or passing out with exercise.
Teen boys, 14 years or older who are basketball players, the highest risk group of athletes.
The tests also recommended for:
•Male high school athletes of any sport.
All male and female college athletes.
They may be considered for:
•Female high school athletes.
Any student, active or inactive, who is interested in being screened.
Source: Dr. Jonathan Drezner, professor, University of Washington’s Department of Family Medicine