Checking Up On Elite Athletes’ Hearts 7,600 Miles Away

September 07, 2017

Dr. Michael Emery watched as athletes from all over the world, from 140 countries, sat on the edge of their chairs.

He watched as athletes from France and Russia and South Korea and Germany leaned in closer to the screen.

Each and every one -- from soccer goalies to basketball point guards to sprint runners -- was intensely listening to what the cardiologist had to say to them, to what was on that screen.

They were finding out something very personal, something critical and something they may not have ever heard before. What was the health of their hearts?

“They were so appreciative that someone was taking the initiative to make sure they were safe,” says Dr. Emery, a sports cardiologist at IU Health and medical director of the IU Health Center for Cardiovascular Care in Athletics. “It was incredible to watch.”

These heart evaluations were taking place at the World University Games held last month in Taipei, Taiwan. Nearly 8,000 athletes traveled to compete in the Olympic-style games put on by International University Sports Federation (FISU).

The gathering is the second largest athletic competition in the world, second only to the Olympics. For 10 days straight, from Aug. 18 to Aug. 28, athletes competed.

For 10 days straight, Dr. Emery and an entire team of health professionals worked in a tiny, makeshift health center screening about 100 athletes per day.

From the United States with Dr. Emery were Kyle Hornsby, M.D., a cardiologist and former Indiana University basketball standout, and Dawn Kirchner, M.D., clinical services director of cardiology at the Watson Clinic in Florida.

The screenings, officially called Check Up Your Heart, are part of a research project and service program hosted by the FISU Medical Committee in collaboration with the Indiana University research team.

For athletes, the heart evaluations were voluntary and included a complete cardiac history risk assessment, blood pressure check, an electrocardiogram and an echocardiogram. All tests were reviewed on the spot by a cardiologist before the athlete left the testing center.

That’s when Dr. Emery watched those athletes sit on the edge of their chairs waiting to hear their results. And it’s when he caught a glimpse of just how important this program is.

“Many of the athletes live in countries where these types of medical resources aren’t available,” Dr. Emery says. “Many wouldn’t ever have the chance to get a thorough cardiac evaluation to make sure they are not at risk for some underlying disease.”

To make sure they were OK to compete.

Dr. Emery has the special eye of a cardiac expert trained to read the nuances of an athlete’s heart. He is one of the cardiologists who administers EKGs to all the players who descend on Indianapolis each year for the NFL Scouting Combine.

He knows a normal heart for a 65-year-old man who is a smoker with diabetes is different from the normal heart of an elite trained athlete.

Out of the 770 athletes tested in Taipei, there were just a few abnormal results, Dr. Emery says.

“We found a couple of things that needed to be addressed, but it didn’t affect their immediate performance or participation,” he says. “But now they know they will need to follow up.”

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.

Reach Benbow via email or on Twitter @danabenbow.

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