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UGA footballers' hearts get special attention

  • Story Highlights
  • University of Georgia requires elite athletes to have EKGs, other tests
  • Doctors have identified athletes who may need monitoring or workout change
  • Sudden cardiac arrest affects more than 400,000 people every year in the U.S.
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By Judy Fortin
CNN Medical Correspondent
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ATHENS, Georgia (CNN) -- Makiri Pugh is not your typical college freshman. At age 18, he knows more than most young adults about the structure and health of his heart, and it's not because he's sick.

Makiri Pugh, a student at the University of Georgia, had to undergo tests on his heart in order to play football.

Pugh, of Charlotte, North Carolina, was recruited to play football for the University of Georgia Bulldogs, ranked No. 1 in pre-season polls.

Like other elite athletes at the school in Athens, Georgia, he was required to undergo a battery of medical tests before he took the field.

What made this checkup unique is that it specifically screens athletes for the risk of sudden cardiac arrest and other heart problems.

Sudden cardiac arrest affects more than 400,000 people every year in the United States and is the leading cause of death among young athletes, according to the National Athletic Trainers' Association.

"What we're looking for today is some evidence that would signal to us that there is an underlying heart problem," explained Atlanta-based cardiologist Winston Gandy.

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Gandy is part of a team of doctors who provide the in-depth exams for the student-athletes at UGA. They look at everything from their eyesight to their hearing to their heart rhythm.

Gandy volunteers his time as medical director of a program called Athlete's Heart Beat.

"There are things that we can pick up with an electrocardiogram or with echocardiography that we may need to follow and in some cases could be career ending," Gandy said.

The group works directly with organizations such as the NCAA to spread the word about the importance of screening athletes for heart problems. Video Health Minute: Watch more on protecting athletes' hearts »

Several times a year, Gandy teams up with technicians who use state-of-the-art heart testing equipment on loan to UGA.

"If you walk into a medical facility and request these same tests, you would spend well over a thousand dollars," Gandy contended.

Pugh was among more than a dozen rookie football players waiting to be tested at the campus health center.

"This is very comprehensive," Pugh said. "It will take a period of three hours. ... My physicals usually take 15 minutes."

"There are many kids who come here and never really had a complete physical exam, let alone an echocardiogram or an EKG," Gandy said. Screening provides a valuable baseline at an early age, he added.

"The athletes look like the picture of health," he said. "Just like a used car, you can shine it up, but none of us think twice about buying it unless we took it for a test drive and had a mechanic look at it."

Although Gandy admitted that the players represent a valuable investment on the part of the school, he noted that in the end, the heart screening program ultimately benefits the athlete.

In the dozen years he's participated in the program, Gandy said, one athlete has been disqualified from competition. Doctors have identified other athletes who may need to be monitored or require changes in their workouts.

In the exam room, Gandy reassured Pugh as a technician hooked up electrodes for an EKG. "It just measures the electrical voltage that your heart puts out. The thing we look for here is your heart rhythm, is it normal?"

Gandy grabbed a printout report of the EKG and told Pugh it looked fine. "So you've passed this first leg of the heart screening."

The next step was an echocardiogram, or ultrasound of the heart. "We're looking for abnormal heart thickening, meaning a portion of the heart wall is thicker than another," Gandy said.

Much to Pugh's relief, Gandy declared that the "numbers are within range."

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That meant Pugh, who hopes to play for the NFL, was officially cleared to play football.

"I wasn't nervous about it," he said. But, he admitted, "you always wonder if something's wrong. ... It's better to find out early than find out later."

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