Proposal: Require Heart Screenings for Student Athletes

Joined by the father of a Texas high school student who died of sudden cardiac arrest, three state lawmakers on Wednesday proposed requiring heart screenings for high school athletes.

Cody Stephens, a Crosby High School football player, died in 2012 of sudden cardiac arrest.

Joined by the father of a Texas high school student who died of sudden cardiac arrest, three state lawmakers on Wednesday proposed requiring heart screenings for high school athletes.

"The concept," a visibly emotional Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, said at a Capitol press conference, "is to help parents escape the heartbreak of losing a child."

Scott Stephens has experienced that heartbreak since May 6, 2012. That Sunday afternoon, his son Cody Stephens — a Crosby High School senior who planned to attend Tarleton State University on a football scholarship — dozed off in his dad's recliner. He never woke up.

It turned out Cody had a heart problem that an electrocardiogram — a noninvasive test of electrical activity in the heart — could have caught, his father said. But it was not part of his school district's physical examination requirements.

Smith's proposal, House Bill 767, would require high school students to receive an electrocardiogram as part of the physical exams they must undergo before participating in athletics. State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, has filed a similar measure, HB 677. A third proposal that calls for such screenings — HB 779 by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble — would allow exemptions for religious or financial reasons.

Under the proposals, the state would not pick up the tab for the electrocardiograms, which can cost up to $15, Smith said.

"I can't imagine anybody not spending $15 to get their child checked," he said.

There are a variety of organizations that provide free screenings, including the Cody Stephens Go Big or Go Home Memorial Foundation, which has provided free electrocardiograms to more than 30,000 students. About 4 percent of those students have been found to have heart issues, and roughly one out of every 1,000 students screened has been referred for heart surgery, said Scott Stephens, the foundation's president.

In 2013, Turner filed a bill that would add electrocardiograms to the physical exams already required by the University Interscholastic League (UIL). The bill died in committee.

Pat Shuff, the co-founder of Cypress ECG, a nonprofit organization that provides free heart screenings throughout the state, said the obstacle to getting such a requirement put in place has been that the UIL has been "unbudging" in its assertion that electrocardiograms are not necessary prior to participation in school athletics.

A spokeswoman for UIL — which organizes competitive activities for public schools in Texas — confirmed that the organization does not mandate such screenings. However, the spokeswoman, Kate Hector, said UIL recently began distributing information to families about heart health, including details about electrocardiograms.

Turner said the proposal has a better chance of passing this year because it has the backing of a bipartisan group of lawmakers. The three bill authors, he said, are "going to block, tackle and run."

"I want Texas to go big or go home," Scott Stephens said. "If Texas will do this, the nation will follow."