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Who We Play For screens hearts in Durango

Nonprofit focuses on preventing sudden cardiac arrest
Members of the nonprofit Who We Play For were in Durango on Saturday offering free electrocardiograms. Counterclockwise from left: Shawn Sima, Tyler Pearce, Zach Ernst, Ralph Maccarone, Brenda Sima, Ray Sima, Evan Ernst, Susanna Oelke and Teodora Andreas. (Cody Olivas/Durango Herald)

The nonprofit organization Who We Play For was at Fort Lewis College on Saturday, performing electrocardiograms on about 40 student-athletes to make sure their hearts are healthy enough for competition.

The mission of the organization is to eliminate preventable sudden cardiac death in the young through affordable heart screenings.

Cast your vote

The nonprofit organization Who We Play For and founder Ralph Maccarone have been selected as one four national finalists for the NASCAR Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award.

The winning nonprofit organization will receive a $100,000 donation. People can vote once per day until Nov. 9 at https://www.nascarfoundation.org/award.

Who We Play For was founded after the death of Rafe Maccarone in 2007. Rafe went into sudden cardiac arrest after warming up for a high school soccer practice and died from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a detectable condition. Since then, Who We Play For has provided more than 200,000 ECG Heart Screenings for student athletes in seven states. From those screenings they have identified over 200 students that required surgical intervention for undetected life-threatening cardiac issues

Maccarone said the funding would be used to continue to provide ECG heart screenings to students who cannot afford them, noting that the organization doesn’t turn away students who can't pay. The funds would provide ECG heart screens for 5,000 students.

Win or lose, the organization plans to return to La Plata County in February for a second annual screening. Maccarone said they’ll be screening in Pagosa Springs on Feb. 17 and is planning on scheduling a screening at Fort Lewis College the same week.

“It is a great honor that Who We Play For and I have been considered for this award,” Maccarone said. “We partnered with NASCAR last year and held a big screening event at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Florida.”

Daytona Beach is in Volusia County, which requires student athletes to have the ECG heart screens.

“We currently have about 30% of the state of Florida requiring the ECG's,” Maccarone said. “We are making a big legislative push next year to pass a statewide mandate.”

The organization, which began in Florida, has administered tests in Pagosa Springs for the past six years, but this was the first year it branched out to serve La Plata County

The story of Who We Play For began Nov. 30, 2007, on the goal line of a Cocoa Beach High School soccer field, where Rafe Maccarone went into sudden cardiac arrest after a warmup routine before practice.

“I got a call from the coach, but I didn’t think it was serious,“ said Rafe’s father, Ralph Maccarone, noting Rafe was an active and seemingly healthy 15-year-old. The next day, however, Rafe died. They found out hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a detectable condition, is what caused his cardiac arrest.

Several of Rafe’s teammates later started the organization, and three flew from Florida to Durango to screen kids here Saturday, including executive director Evan Ernst, legal counsel Zack Ernst and Tyler Pearce, who was administering tests.

Since its inception, Who We Play For has screened more than 200,000 kids in seven states, mainly in Florida, and have found over 200 kids with life-threatening cardiac conditions.

Shawn Sima’s daughter, whom he called the “epitome of health,” also suffered SCA but survived in part because someone was able to give her CPR right away. Sima works as a physician’s assistant and said the standard physical athletes must do “misses 96% of the things that will kill them. SCA is the leading cause of death in athletes and the leading cause of death in schools.”

DHS junior Maddox Bryant, 16, gets an ECG scan on Saturday at Fort Lewis College, administered by Tyler Pearce of Who We Play For. The non-profit organization screened the hearts of about 40 local athletes, ages 10 and up. (Cody Olivas/Durango Herald)

According to the organization, 1 in 300 kids have an undetected heart condition that puts them at risk for sudden cardiac arrest. Many won’t realize it until it’s too late.

“The first symptom 85% of the time is death,” Sima said.

The organization is pushing to make EKG tests a standard requirement to compete in sports and 30% of the school districts in Florida have already made it mandatory while a bill is also in the state legislature.

The EKG tests are one of the simplest and fastest tests used to evaluate the heart. Electrodes are placed at certain spots on the chest and body to measure electrical activity. Who We Play For sends the tests to medical professionals who evaluate the results and report back to the schools in three to five days.

Teodora Andreas, an athletic trainer with Mercy, also helped out on Saturday, administering tests to the girls.

The organization screened kids ages 10 and up. And it plans to return next year. Evan Ernst said there’s some dispute how often athletes should be screened, but said most agree that they should be screened either every year or every other year.

More information at https://www.whoweplayfor.org/