It was just like any other morning when Jerry Truax made breakfast for his 16-year-old son Matthew in their Edmonds home September 13, 2013.
“I kidded him about whether he’d asked anybody out for the homecoming dance yet. He hadn’t. I said, ‘Well, you better get on it. It’s coming up.'” Little did he know it would be the last time he’d ever see his son alive again.
Several hours later, Jerry got a call that’s every parent’s nightmare.
“There was a lot of noise and confusion in the background and I heard CPR. And the lady in the office said they were giving him CPR and I knew then he was in trouble.”
Jerry and his wife Melinda raced to nearby Meadowdale High School where Matthew had collapsed on the field running in P.E. class. Teachers and aid workers performed CPR and briefly restored his heartbeat before rushing him to Swedish Hospital in Edmonds. Despite their best efforts, doctors couldn’t save him.
“I know that everybody did everything they could to save our boy. But his heart stopped again once they got to the hospital and they just couldn’t get him back. They tried everything,” says his mother Melinda as she fights back tears, looking at pictures of Matthew and their family on her iPad.
After his death, doctors determined Matthew suffered from Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes an enlargement of the heart that commonly causes sudden cardiac arrest. But his parents had no idea.
“He was perfectly healthy. At least we thought he was. He’s been an athlete since he was five. I mean he played soccer, baseball, basketball,” says Melinda.
He was also an avid snowboarder and had recently gotten a clean bill of health in a mandatory sports physical before the start of the school year.
“We’ve wracked our brains trying to think of any signs that would have told us. But he didn’t have any,” says Jerry.
Sadly, their story is far from unique. On average, a seemingly healthy young person suffers a sudden cardiac arrest every three days in the U.S. It’s the leading cause of death in exercising young athletes, according to the Seattle-based Nick of Time Foundation. The organization was founded by Darla Varrenti, whose son Nick died from sudden cardiac arrest soon after playing high school football in 2004.
Like Nick, Matthew was in great shape. But that’s the problem. While his condition occurs frequently in young athletes, it’s only detectable with an electrocardiogram – a specialized heart test not administered as part of a regular physical.
“You can’t tell by looking at your child that there’s something wrong. If Matthew had been screened, we probably would have picked it up,” Darla says.
But few parents and kids have ever heard of the need for screenings. Most doctors don’t recommend it and many insurance companies don’t cover the cost, according to Darla.
The Nick of Time Foundation stages screenings at high schools around the Puget Sound region and has recently expanded its volunteer-based program to other states. There, doctors perform the specialized tests for hundreds of students. They commonly detect heart abnormalities in at least a handful of kids at every screening. And they’re easily treated, preventing sudden cardiac arrest and death.
“And we shout it from the rooftops all the time,” Darla says. “But when you hear it from a parent it’s happened to, it’s something other parents need to pay attention to.”
“I just hope that every mom, every dad, every grandparent will take their child, whether they think they’re healthy or not, just to have that knowledge they don’t have a heart condition,” Melinda pleads. If they’d known about screenings before, they wouldn’t have hesitated to have Matthew checked out, she adds.
“Everything we’ve learned about this we’ve learned in the last three weeks since Matthew died,” says Jerry. “We were just pretty average parents with a pretty average kid out there playing sports and having fun and everything was fine.”
Matthew’s death has been devastating for his family and friends. Hundreds turned out to honor the easygoing kid, who always had a smile on his face at a memorial service. He had dedicated himself to a 4.0 his junior year of school and planned to follow in his older brother’s footsteps at Western Washington University.
“He had a great life ahead of him,” Jerry says quietly as he’s overcome with emotion thinking about his son and friend. Now, Matthew’s parents have dedicated themselves to honoring his memory by sharing his story and their grief, in hopes others get their kids screened for potential heart problems. And they’re urging people to donate to the Nick of Time Foundation, so it can provide even more screenings.
“With the infrastructure we’ve built, we can do about eight to 10 a year. But we’d be able to do a lot more if we can grow because it’s all volunteer based.”
The University of Washington has established a new sports medicine clinic at Husky Stadium that will offer screenings for anyone for $50, making them available on a regular basis.
As they try and figure out how to make the best of their tragedy, Jerry and Melinda say they don’t care where kids get screened, just that they do.
“You hear about kids suddenly dying, but you’re so far removed from it. But boy, we wouldn’t want anybody to go through this,” he sighs.
You can learn more about The Nick of Time Foundation, sudden cardiac arrest and find out how to sign up for an upcoming screening here.