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Player's Death Stirs Concern Over Physicals

September 07, 1996|STEVE EMMONS and MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The news Friday of the Santa Ana teen's death struck hard at Peggy Barrett-Lunde of Costa Mesa, who broke down and cried.

Just 10 months ago, her 14-year-old son, Gray Lunde, had collapsed and died during a water polo practice at Newport Harbor High School.

One of the people who had sent sympathy cards was a Saddleback High water polo player named Jaffet Campos.

Now 17-year-old Jaffet "Jeff" Campos was dead after collapsing during water polo practice at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana.

"It's almost identical to our situation," said Gray's father, Robert Lunde. 'We understand what his parents are going through right now. They are thinking, 'Why would this happen?' "

The odds of a high school athlete suddenly dying during practice or competition are about 1 in 200,000, according to just-issued report by the American Heart Assn.

The overwhelming cause of the deaths is a congenital heart defect. Though that condition is difficult to detect, the association urged in its report three weeks ago that uniform national guidelines be adopted for athletes' physical examinations.

Gray Lunde's autopsy laid the cause of death to his heart condition. An autopsy on Campos was conducted Thursday morning, but more tests are needed. Investigators said the cause of his death Wednesday afternoon late in practice was not obvious.

"When this happens, it's a terrible tragedy," said Paul D. Thompson, a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in preventive cardiology. He is vice president of the American College of Sports Medicine and about to publish a study on the risks of exercise. He helped write the heart association report.

"My heart goes out to the families," said Thompson, "but there is a tendency among schools and the athletic community to overreact." Trying to detect heart defects among school athletes is "like trying to find a needle in the haystack," he said.

The type of sport seems to matter little, Thompson said. "There are more deaths in football and baseball, I think, but probably because there are more participants." It is the level of exertion that triggers the collapse, not the form of the exertion, he said.

"There is no way that all potentially fatal heart conditions can be detected through pre-participation screening," said Barry Maron, director of cardiovascular research at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation and coauthor of the heart association report.

"The public must realize this and that, to a certain extent, participating in competitive sports is part of the risk of living."

The trauma was none the less at Saddleback High. After the death Wednesday, Monte McCord, water polo coach there for six years, canceled practice for the rest of the week. A few team members were working out in the pool, but others were receiving psychological counseling.

"The players were devastated," said McCord. "We are a close team. We are like a family."

Standing at poolside not far from where it happened, McCord somberly recalled using CPR to try to revive the boy.

"It's one of those things you aren't sure if you can do," said McCord. He worked for about five minutes before paramedics arrived, but "it seemed like I was doing it forever."

Vianey Espino, 16, of Santa Ana, shared an algebra class last year with Campos and saw him only two weeks ago during registration. She said his death was especially troubling; her grandfather and aunt died this summer.

"At first I couldn't believe [Campos] was dead, because sometimes you have to see it to believe it, and I didn't really feel that much," she said. "But then when I went home it started to hit me really hard. Really hard. It was so strange."

"He was a good guy," she said. "He was always nice to everyone."

The school's principal, Lyn Maher, said Campos has passed a physical exam "just a week or two ago." Gray Lunde also had had physical exams, and while a heart ailment was diagnosed and reported to his parents and school officials, doctors said he was not in danger.

"Sometimes you can find those kids" who have dangerous heart defects, said Thompson. "They have symptoms or a heart murmur. But not all of them. When someone dies, it doesn't mean someone screwed up."

According to one medical journal article, perhaps 55% of such deaths are due to one type of congenital heart defect: hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscles. "The heart becomes almost muscle-bound," said Thompson. "About one in 500 people have it in this country, but a lot don't die."

Another 11% of the deaths are caused by coronary artery anomalies, congenital defects in which arteries that feed the heart muscles are malformed. If the blood flow is reduced enough, the heart begins to twitch instead of beat and stops pumping blood.

Thompson said that at least five studies have tried to determine whether electrocardiograms, the charting of the heart's electrical rhythms, could help identify high school and college athletes at risk.

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