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Parents turn loss to heart health awareness

Hector and Rhina Paredes suffered an unimaginable loss in 2009 — the death of their son, Eric, 15, from sudden cardiac arrest.

Since then, the El Cajon couple has made it their mission to ensure other families don't have to suffer a similar tragedy.

The Paredes launched the Eric Paredes Save A Life Foundation, which provides free cardiac screenings to local teenagers in the hopes of catching undetected heart abnormalities that may put them at risk for sudden cardiac arrest.

The foundation is holding its 17th screening from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday at Patrick Henry High School. Any teenager is welcome to attend. To date, the group's volunteers have screened nearly 10,000 teens and found about 100 at risk.

"I would encourage teens to go because we were a normal family — cooking dinners, doing homework, buying clothes — and if something horrific can happen to us, it can happen to anyone," Rhina Paredes said.

Eric, who was a sophomore at Steele Canyon High School in Spring Valley, had no health problems. He showed no symptoms or warning signs before dying suddenly at home. Doctors suspect he had Long QT syndrome, but they can't be sure.

According to foundation officials, about 7,000 youths die annually from sudden cardiac arrest, including five or six in San Diego County.

"I wish we would have at least been informed," Hector Paredes said. "I think general practitioners, pediatricians and family doctors should at least be informing parents, 'Hey, your insurance doesn't cover this, but there is some criteria that suggests (you may want to get an EKG)."

During a sudden cardiac event, heart function ceases abruptly and often without warning. About 95 percent of victims die.

Unlike a heart attack, which happens when a blocked blood vessel prevents blood from flowing to the heart muscle, sudden cardiac arrest is caused by a malfunction in the heart’s electrical system that abruptly halts the heartbeat.

Since survival once an event happens is so low, prevention is the key. The most effective methods of early detection is an electrocardiogram (EKG) test, which is not provided as part of a routine high school sports physical and is not covered by most insurance plans.

The Paredes came up with the idea of holding free screenings in 2010 from the national organization Parent Heart Watch, an advocate of youth screenings and AED (automated external defibrillation) training.

At their first screening – held at Steele Canyon High – 540 kids were tested and five were found at risk from heart abnormalities, including one child who had Wolff Parkinson White Syndrome, which is an extra pathway in the heart, and required surgery. A few others needed a cardiac ablation procedure to correct heart rhythm problems.

"I believe that particular screening just launched us forward," Hector said.

The free screenings given by the Paredes Foundation includes an EKG and, if needed, an echocardiogram, which is like a sonogram of the heart. All participants also fill out a health questionnaire.

Any teens found during the screening to be at risk can then follow up with their doctor for treatment, which could range from medication to open-heart surgery.

Erin Lawson, whose two children attend Steele Canyon High School, heard about the screening from a friend, who told her officials were finding seemingly healthy kids with heart defects.

So she took both of her kids in to be tested and her son, Devin, was found to have a hole in his heart and a coronary artery anomaly.

A 14-year-old freshman-to-be at the time, he eventually underwent open-heart surgery. Six weeks later, he was playing with the high school soccer team and later played baseball.

"I'm so thankful," Erin Lawson said. "If I hadn't heard about the screenings, I probably never would have had (an EKG) done or paid to have it done. I'm lucky I heard about it and had it done."

Devin had shown no previous signs of heart trouble

"He used to play the whole soccer game and never get tired," Erin said.

Hector Paredes said he would like to see California lawmakers help raise awareness of the dangers of sudden cardiac arrest. Hoping to join the national discussion about concussions, Paredes would like heart health to be talked about as well.

He'd also like to see a requirement that EKGs be used for all high school physicals and the presence of AEDs in all public places where children are engaged in athletics.

Studies show that as many as 30 percent to 50 percent of individuals are likely to survive if CPR and AEDs are used within five minutes of their collapse. According to the National EMS Information System, it takes an average of 8 to 11 minutes for first responders to arrive at the scene, meaning easy access to an AED is crucial.

Rhina Paredes said her involvement with the foundation comes with mixed emotions.

"It's bittersweet for me because I want to have my son with me," she said. "I'd rather have my son, but knowing I can't do that, helping others gives me certain peace. (We're) helping other kids who may be at risk."

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