This Valentine season, the Albany Fire Department is inviting young athletes to check their hearts at the door.

The department is holding a Willamette Valley Youth Heart Screening on Feb. 24 in the Commons building of South Albany High School and is sending invitations to everyone, ages 11 through 25, to come get checked.

The plan is to screen youths from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., but if more youths are still waiting in line, screeners will keep going, said Sandy Roberts, public information officer and assistant fire marshal.

"This is something we fully support and are willing to put overtime monies toward," she said.

Added Kyle Romey, Emergency Medical Services chief, who will be part of the staff that day: "We'll stay there till we close it down."

Screenings will be overseen by Fire Department personnel but administered by a nonprofit organization, Who We Play For. This will be the first time the Texas-based agency has done a screening in Oregon.

The cost for the heart screening will be $20 per child to offset the nonprofit's costs, but Roberts said scholarships from the Albany Firefighters Community Assistance Fund will be available to anyone in need. 

According to Samaritan Health Services, the cost of a self-paid electrocardiogram would be approximately $210, plus a fee of about $20 for a physician to read it.

Invitations have been sent out so far to mid-valley middle and high schools, Boys & Girls Clubs, the Mid-Willamette Family YMCA, Linn-Benton Community College and other organizations that work with children and athletics, Roberts said. However, all youths in the age range are welcome, whether or not they participate in an organized sport.

"We just really want to get it out to as many kids as possible," she said.

On average, an estimated 66 athletes die suddenly of cardiac causes each year in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An American College of Cardiology/European Society of Cardiology consensus document published in 2003 found hypertrophic cardiomyopathy to be the most common cardiovascular cause of sudden death in young people.

Regular sports physicals don't check for heart disease or abnormalities, however, Roberts said. The Feb. 24 event is meant to make such checks financially feasible.

Carly Shears, a firefighter/paramedic with the Albany department, learned about Who We Play For last year during an emergency medical services conference in Bend. The keynote speaker was from the Texas agency.

Just days after Shears returned to her home in Washington, one of her son's friends had a cardiac episode during a game. Luckily, an off-duty battalion chief had access to a portable defibrillator and was able to save her life, but the scare drove home to Shears the importance of youth screenings. She said she plans to bring her own son to the Feb. 24 event.

"It's important because students are dying from this, and it's preventable," she said. "The screenings are in place. They're just not offered."

The screenings to be provided at the Feb. 24 event are simple checks that are estimated to catch 94 percent of heart issues and flag them for followup with medical providers.

Here's how it works: Families must sign a waiver for their child's participation. Waivers will be available at the door or can be downloaded in advance from https://www.cityofalbany.net/wvyhs.

Screeners will have seven to eight electrocardiogram machines set up, with privacy screens and both female and male personnel to work with girls and boys.

Screenings are expected to take about 10 minutes or less, and most of that is just attaching and removing the electrical leads, Romey said. The EKG itself is over in seconds.

Results will be emailed to each family within a few days of the screening, or hard copies will be mailed if families don't have email access. If the child participates in a sport overseen by an athletic director, such as through a high school, the school also will receive a copy of the report.

The cardiologists working on the reports from the screening are trained in screening the 11-25 age range, which is why younger or older ages are not recommended for this particular screening, Shear said.

The Fire Department isn't sure what the turnout will be for the screening, or whether it will be an annual event. Screeners are hoping they'll be busy all day, however, even if the event does run into overtime.

"Even if we just catch one, it's more than worth every penny," Shear said.

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