The advent of the high school and college athletic seasons brings with it the ritual of physicals, the routine medical screening
of young men and women to make certain—more or less—that they have no underlying conditions that would put them
It’s the “less” in the above sentence that has Feleica Locklear-Stewart’s attention. And she is on a mission to make sure we do more, not just for athletes, but for all our young.
It’s a quest, literally and figuratively, that comes from Stewart’s heart … the heart that was broken forever 11 years ago when she watched her son die.
I remember all too well.
Working for the local daily in March 1999, I went to the Columbus North High School gymnasium to write a column about an IHSAA boys state basketball tournament regional matchup between the two top-rated teams in the state, Lawrence North and Bloomington South.
North’s star player was 7-foot-1-inch John Stewart, who was bound for the University of Kentucky on a basketball scholarship and a chance for future riches in the National Basketball Association.
But midway through the third quarter, Stewart motioned to the LN bench that he needed to come out of the game. Moments later, on the sideline, he collapsed.
The game was halted as doctors among the spectators rushed to his aid and tried to revive him. Several minutes later, he was taken by ambulance to the local hospital. Stewart never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead.
I’d come to write about a basketball game, and ended up dealing with a tragedy. It remains the worst night of my sports-writing career.
An autopsy confirmed Stewart had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, a thickening of the heart muscles that can result in highly abnormal rhythms as the heart has to work hard—too hard—to move blood through. HCM is best detected by the use of echocardiograms, but they are expensive (more than $1,000) and are not a routine part of physicals, especially on the high school level.
Locklear-Stewart, who is a nurse, is determined to do something about that.
In the wake of John’s death, there was a groundswell of concern. Many in the athletic, medical and training communities weighed in that better testing was needed and that, at the very least, electrocardiograms (also known as EKGs, which are less expensive than echocardiograms) should be routinely administered to young athletes.
But in time, people moved on with their lives. Even Locklear-Stewart admits that, as she struggled to fill the void of losing a child, she also struggled to find her next purpose in life.
“How do I continue on?” she said. “I finally realized it was in trying to save children’s lives from the disease that took my son.”
Thus, this October, to mark what would have been John’s 30th birthday, Locklear-Stewart is working to organize a local “day of screening” in which two high schools (Attucks and Lawrence North), a church (St. Luke United Methodist) and area hospitals would offer affordable (she hopes for as little as $25) echocardiograms to area youth, both athletes and non-athletes.
She also has reached out to the NCAA with the hope of having screening take place during the Men’s and Women’s Final Fours, and is enlisting the participation of the Indianapolis-based American College of Sports Medicine.
She also has revived the John H. Stewart Foundation as a not-for-profit with an ambitious goal: Raise enough money to retrofit a recreational vehicle that would serve as a traveling echocardiogram unit offering the procedure at low cost to youth across the state of Indiana.
She estimated the price tag for that would be somewhere around $300,000, not including the staffing it would require.
Too much to take on? Locklear-Stewart responds by citing a staggering statistic from a group, Parent Heart Watch, that says 10 American children die every day of undetected heart disease and that HCM is one of the leading causes of death among young athletes.
“I want people to come on board so that kids stop dying,” she said.
If you’re interested, she can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.