Mother advocates child heart screenings

LEWISTOWN – Jennifer Wagner lost her 2-year-old daughter, Cathrynne, last year to myocarditis, a difficult-to-diagnose inflammation of the heart muscle caused by sudden infection. Without the proper heart screening technology and diagnoses tools, Cathrynne’s condition remained undiagnosed until it was too late.

“Medical technology and medicines available today rarely diagnose myocarditis until someone is in respiratory and/or cardiac arrest and the damage has already been done,” Wagner said. “It wasn’t until they looked at her heart during the autopsy that they saw she had damage on all layers of her heart.”

In memory of her daughter, Wagner created Cathrynne’s Heart Memorial Fund and Cardiac Cat, a local organization dedicated to improving childhood heart screening and awareness. The group held its first free heart screening event on April 28 at Fame EMS with Dr. Nishant Shah, pediatric cardiologist from Penn State Hershey Medical Center, providing risk assessments and electrocardiograms to 72 children.

“I can raise money for myocarditis research to help fight the disease that killed her, but until something can be done to screen more effectively for myocarditis, it seems logical to be aggressive against all heart conditions in the hopes that it might save a single life,” Wagner said.

Out of the 72 children, eight were recommended to a pediatric cardiologist for a follow-up appointment, Wagner said. They will most likely undergo an echocardiogram to determine if they have any heart conditions or diseases that can cause sudden cardiac arrest, she said.

Sudden cardiac arrest is caused by an undiagnosed problem with the structure or electrics of the heart, said Dr. Christopher Severs, a pediatrician with Geisinger Lewistown. Not to be confused with a heart attack, caused by a blockage in the heart’s blood flow, he said.

“Though the instance of sudden cardiac arrest in children is low, less than 10 percent that experience it in a hospital survive,” Severs said. “The percentage is even lower for children who experience it outside of a hospital.”

According to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation, 6,000 to 8,000 deaths result from sudden cardiac arrest in children each year.

Signs of sudden cardiac arrest include racing heartbeat or dizziness before fainting with no findable pulse, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Before the arrest occurs, people can experience chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting.

“Your first response should be to call 9-1-1,” Severs said. “After that, begin administering CPR until the medics arrive. Chances of survival increase 50 percent with the use of CPR.”

If possible, tell someone to find an automated external defibrillator, an electrical device that stops the heart and allows it to continue a normal rhythm, Severs said. All schools and many public places provide defibrillators in easy access areas, he said.

Keep these steps in mind, especially when attending school athletic events, as sudden cardiac arrest occurs most often in young athletes with an undiagnosed heart condition or disease, Severs said. Though there is always a pre-screening process to play sports, roughly five out of every 158 child athletes are playing with an unknown heart concern, he said.

Which is one of many reasons that childhood heart screenings are so important, Wagner said. If there are 5,400 children in the Mifflin County School District, then 54 of them have a heart condition, she said.

Cardiac Cat plans to offer a second free heart screening event for children in April or May of 2014. After which, they plan to offer screenings every six months, Wagner said.

“Parents were just so thankful for the screening event,” Wagner said. “One woman came over and hugged me and a grandma said that getting her granddaughter’s heart checked was good for her heart.”

For more information on the Cardiac Cat, visit or the Cathrynne’s Heart Memorial Fund Facebook page.