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House Approves Heart Exams for High School Athletes

Almost three years after a Texas high school football player died from sudden cardiac arrest, the Texas House has tentatively approved mandatory electrocardiograms for high school athletes.

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

The numbers assigned to legislative bills are usually meaningless, often reflecting nothing more than the order in which they were filed. That’s not the case for House Bill 767, intentionally numbered in honor of a Texas high school football player who wore number 76 and died in 2012 from sudden cardiac arrest.

On Monday, almost three years after the death of Crosby High School senior Cody Stephens, the Texas House gave preliminary approval to HB 767, which requires students to receive an electrocardiogram (EKG) before they can play high school sports. Stephens, who planned to attend Tarleton State University on a football scholarship, fell asleep in his dad’s recliner on May 6, 2012, and never woke up.

The screening required by the new legislation, written by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, could have caught the heart problem that cost Stephens his life.

“If we can save one kid’s life, it’s worth it,” said state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, one of the bill's authors.

A similar effort in 2013 by state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, faltered in a House committee. But HB 767 — which boasts five authors, Republicans Smith, Dan Huberty and J.D. Sheffield and Democrats Turner and Eddie Lucio III — tentatively passed the House 86-57.

The measure adds an electrocardiogram — a noninvasive test of electrical activity in the heart — to the health assessment students are already required to pass before they’re allowed to play high school sports. The EKG is required before an athlete’s first and third year of participation, and parents have the option to waive the EKG requirement for their children “for any reason.”

“All we’re asking for is one more test,” Huberty said.

The requirement wouldn't go into effect until the 2016-17 school year, giving rural school districts that lack EKG capabilities time to prepare for the change. A similar bill in the Texas Senate was filed by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Huberty said an EKG costs about $15. Several organizations, including the Cody Stephens Go Big or Go Home Memorial Foundation, run by Stephens’ father, Scott Stephens, offer free heart screenings.

But several House members who spoke in opposition to the bill voiced concerns about the high cost of further procedures if the initial electrocardiogram is inconclusive. State Rep. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, a physician, said subsequent tests could cost families hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Lucio told his colleagues to imagine facing the parents who had lost a child to a heart problem that could have been detected by an EKG.

“What are you going to tell that parent when they come to you and say, ‘Hey, there was a bill before you to make this test mandatory and you voted against it?’” Lucio said. “Think about that.”

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