April 24, 2014
Dr. Tom DeBauche of Cypress Cardiology and his daughter Mary DeBauche, director of operations for the Cypress ECG Project, are helping save students’ lives in more than 100 school districts across Texas and as far away as Washington state through their nonprofit organization that provides low-cost electrocardiograms (ECGs) to student athletes. The map pictured in their office pinpoints all the districts that have brought the project into their schools.
April 24, 2014—The life-saving hero in popular fiction tends to dress extravagantly and possess superhuman abilities. In Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, he wears a white lab coat and interprets electrocardiograms with the blink of an eye.
Dr. Tom DeBauche of Cypress Cardiology used the district as a launching point for what is now the Cypress ECG Project, a program that has partnered with more than 100 school districts in Texas, Louisiana and Washington to offer electrocardiogram screenings for more than 40,000 athletes.
A labor of love that has spanned nearly 15 years, Dr. DeBauche’s tireless efforts have saved a number of lives in the district and beyond, and influenced the University Interscholastic League (UIL) to introduce a sudden cardiac arrest awareness form to all parents of athletes.
Earlier this month, Dr. DeBauche was named one of CFISD’s 75 influential honorees for impacting “Our Children, Our Schools, Our Community”—the 75th Anniversary slogan—throughout the district’s history.
According to him, the program could not have succeeded anywhere else.
“It’s funny, this probably wouldn’t have worked with any other school district, probably in America,” Dr. DeBauche said. “Cy-Fair ISD just has it together; they always did from the beginning. They were helpful, they caught on right away to what it was all about. It was the most efficient, most cooperative environment you could imagine from the top down. Using Cypress-Fairbanks ISD as a launching point was the only way this could have worked.”
The electrocardiogram (more commonly known as ECG, or EKG) is a test that translates the heart’s electrical activity into waves on computer software to find the cause of various problems within the heart.
Twelve leads containing 10 electrodes are placed by a school athletic trainer or nurse on the student’s chest and torso. The leads are connected to an ECG device the size of a paperback book, which connects to a laptop and transmits the heart’s rhythms to the software in mere minutes.
“It’s quick, it’s simple and it’s painless,” said Cypress Lakes assistant athletic trainer Heather Smith. “Some freshmen will come in here not knowing what it is, and you can see the fear in their eyes: ‘Am I going to get a shot? Am I going to get electrocuted?’ No, they’re not going to feel anything.”
Cypress Lakes High School trainers Alain Dorval and Heather Smith prepare junior student Jefren Demeterio for an electrocardiogram (ECG) at the school this month. Dorval said two CFISD students with holes in their hearts needing corrective surgery have already been detected by ECGs this school year.
The ECG results are then emailed to Dr. DeBauche, who reviews them and indicates a diagnosis if there is one. One of three levels of diagnoses is made—low-risk, follow-up or high-risk. A follow-up indicates a need for a cardiologist appointment based on an abnormality on an ECG, while a high-risk diagnosis prompts an immediate call to a trainer or nurse to remove the student from physical activity. Results are returned within two business days.
“Ninety-five percent of the time, it’s low-risk,” said Mary DeBauche, Dr. DeBauche’s daughter and the director of operations for the Cypress ECG Project.
The biggest benefit of ECGs for athletes is that they catch irregularities that cannot be detected in an athletic physical.
“About 1 percent of heart issues can be detected by a stethoscope,” Mary said. “Sixty percent of kids who die from cardiac arrest never show symptoms whatsoever. It’s hard to think something could be wrong with your child, especially one who acts and looks as healthy as an athlete.”
Dr. DeBauche saw this discrepancy years ago, and began offering free ECG screenings for Cy-Fair High School student athletes in 2000 while his children were students.
The services soon expanded to all CFISD high schools, and in 2008 Dr. DeBauche introduced a free electrocardiogram screening program for all incoming ninth-grade student athletes. Dr. DeBauche’s pledge to the district included the donation of 12 ECG machines.
During a Board meeting when the partnership was announced, former superintendent Dr. David Anthony praised the cardiologist for his service to the district.
“We will be the only school district in the state of Texas that intends to test every student athlete,” Dr. Anthony had said. “In my 34 years in education, I’ve never experienced a donation of time, expertise and material more important to the lives of students.”
While time, expertise and materials can be measured, the size of Dr. DeBauche’s heart for students is difficult to quantify.
“He’s the most generous man I know, and that’s not hubris,” Mary said. “He dedicates himself to everything, and he loves helping students. He’s still so proud of that Friend of Education award he won years ago.”
The Cypress ECG project was born in 2010, when Dr. DeBauche and Mary’s husband, Pat Shuff, incorporated as a nonprofit in an effort to expand the program to other school districts.
Dr. DeBauche’s partner at Cypress Cardiology, Dr. Peter Razeghi, joined the effort, as well as a team of four salespeople.
Shuff’s business background melded well with Dr. DeBauche’s medical acumen, and after some cold calls to local school districts, they started to build a groundswell of partners.
The pitch was simple: Cypress ECG Project provides the equipment, trained staff to administer the screenings and cardiologists to interpret them. Schools charge $15 per test to cover costs—a bargain from the $150 it could run in a doctor’s office. Student athletes would require just one ECG in middle school and one in high school.
The offer was too good to pass up, and before long more than 100 districts lined up to make the Cypress ECG Project the largest screening provider in the state.
A handful of districts—CFISD, Lubbock, La Porte and Dickinson—took the program to the next level, purchasing their own machines and equipment and training their own staff for the screenings. In CFISD, screenings for student athletes are free and included in their physical packets.
In 2012-2013, Dr. DeBauche’s team screened 10,139 students nationwide, including 5,201 in CFISD. This school year, the project has screened more than 3,200 in Cypress-Fairbanks and 7,200 nationwide—a number it expects to grow to about 15,000.
“We plan on increasing our reach by 50 percent each year for the next few years,” Mary said. “We’re still only in a small fraction of the state’s 1,000-plus districts. Ultimately, we would love every school district in Texas to at least offer them to athletes.”
The program is producing critical results. In CFISD in 2013-2014, ECGs detected holes in the hearts of two students who needed corrective surgery.
“We average about three to four per year, and we’ve had a couple we have red-flagged for conditions,” said CFISD lead athletic trainer Alain Dorval. “The biggest thing I talk about is that we have caught kids who got flagged, then we go back and look at the physical and there’s no abnormality on it. No shortness of breath, anything. That alone is reason to offer screenings.”
And while Dr. DeBauche is happy to help solve heart conditions, he admits it is never easy to deliver the news.
“You have mixed feelings when you find someone with a serious heart problem. I’ve been in the heart business a long time and I’ve found that to be true,” he said. “One, it provides you an opportunity to prevent a disaster; but two, it’s a serious heart problem and you feel sorry for the person. At least you found it in time to deal with it.”
Since the project’s formation, Dr. DeBauche and Shuff have attended UIL executive and medical advisory council meetings every year to plead the case for ECGs being required along with athletic physicals.
“They would go every year with no success whatsoever,” Mary said. “The medical advisory council had always advised against it. It was like pounding your head against the wall. You know you can help people and make a difference in their lives. For it to come down to a matter of cost or whatever reasons they have, it’s very frustrating.”
It took the death of a student athlete to ultimately affect change. In May 2012, Crosby High School football star Cody Stephens passed away in his sleep from sudden cardiac arrest. His parents, Scott and Melody Stephens, launched the “Go Big or Go Home” Cody Stephens Foundation to raise awareness about the silent killer.
Cy-Fair High School sophomore Shayli Christensen will be able to keep cheering after an open-heart surgery corrected an atrial septic defect (ASD) in her heart that was discovered after she took an ECG at the school.
While researching the issue, Scott came across the story of Hargrave High School student Chris Aguilar, who underwent heart surgery after an abnormality was detected by an ECG in August 2011. Huffman ISD had joined the Cypress ECG Project prior to that school year, and Aguilar was screened two days prior to beginning two-a-day football practices.
Dr. DeBauche detected an irregularity on the ECG, and called Hargrave to ask that Aguilar be removed from physical activity and see a cardiologist. His March surgery to correct left posterior fascicular ventricular tachycardia likely saved his life.
Scott Stephens asked Aguilar if he would join the fight for ECG screenings, and after their testimony to the UIL, an ad hoc committee was developed to draft the sudden cardiac awareness form, which the UIL began providing to 600,000 student athletes in August 2013. Although the ECG is still not mandatory, parents and students must sign the form that provides the symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest and information on screenings.
“The form was big for us. It’s a step in the right direction,” Mary DeBauche said. “Every parent has to at least see it and sign off on it. It lets them know this is an issue to be aware of.”
For nearly two years, Cy-Fair High School sophomore Shayli Christensen could not catch her breath. The cheerleader’s breathing became difficult any time she ran, tumbled or jumped. Her mother, Linda, took her to a pediatrician, who ruled that she had asthma and prescribed an inhaler.
“It never did a thing,” said Linda, a fifth-grade teacher at Black Elementary School. “We knew it couldn’t be asthma because she still couldn’t breathe.”
Shayli underwent an ECG screening from Cy-Fair trainer Christopher Graf in November 2013, and the Christensens received a letter indicating a follow-up diagnosis. Dr. DeBauche saw her free of charge, and after conducting an ultrasound, found a 3-centimeter hole in the middle of her heart. The medical term is an atrial septal defect (ASD).
“We were in complete shock,” Linda said. “She’s a very healthy girl. She’s in great shape, and there was no family history of this at all.”
Shayli’s condition was not ruled immediately life threatening, but she was told the ASD would need to be fixed by the end of the summer to avoid serious complications. She finished out the football and basketball cheer seasons, and underwent open-heart surgery on April 15.
She was released after 4 ½ days in the hospital, and is expected back at school on May 1.
“She’s doing great. She’s better than I am,” Linda said. “I am forever indebted to [the Cypress ECG Project], and am forever grateful for what they have done. I’ll start crying if I go on. We would have never, ever known.”
Luis Hernandez has similar sentiments. His son, Langham Creek High School sophomore Mauricio Hernandez, had an ASD detected after Langham Creek clinic assistant Dawn Dille performed an ECG on him in September 2012. He was active in band and soccer, and—unlike Christensen—showed no symptoms from the quarter-sized hole in his heart.
“We were scared and surprised, because he had experienced nothing despite all his activity,” Luis said.
Mauricio underwent open-heart surgery in June 2013, and has made a full recovery.
“We are always going to be grateful to the Cy-Fair school district for helping with these preventative studies for the kids,” Luis said.
Langham Creek High School sophomore Mauricio Hernandez made a full recovery from surgery to correct an ASD that was detected by an ECG performed by Langham Creek clinic assistant Dawn Dille in September 2012.
Mauricio is already back to playing soccer, and Shayli is expected to resume cheerleading by football season. According to Mary DeBauche, this is the intent.
“Honestly, we're most proud of the cases where students are able to get their heart problem fixed and return to play,” she said. “We’re all former athletes. We’re not trying to take people out of sports; we want them to play sports with healthy hearts. That’s our overriding goal.”
Following Shayli’s successful operation and recovery, Linda Christensen posted a glowing compliment on the Cypress ECG Project’s Facebook page. She said she will forever be an advocate of their mission.
“I do everything I can to get the word out,” she said. “It’s fast, it’s easy and it’s cost-effective. It literally saved my daughter’s life.”
Luis Hernandez initially had to be convinced by another band parent to allow Mauricio to undergo his life-saving screening.
“At the beginning we didn’t want him to go, but one of parents called us and said, ‘Just get it, it’s free for all the kids in band,’” Luis said. “That’s why we did it. Now, we’re telling everyone, ‘Yes, go do it.’”
Advocacy for the program flows from the top down in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD. Superintendent Dr. Mark Henry, a board member for the Cypress ECG Project, will never forget losing a young athlete to an abnormal heart early in his tenure at Galena Park ISD.
“It was a heartbreaking, emotional time,” he said. “He had never been screened for any type of congenital heart issue. An ECG program might have picked that up if we had it in place. We are so fortunate in Cypress-Fairbanks to have Dr. DeBauche’s expertise to help raise awareness and allow widespread access to heart screenings.”
For more information on the Cypress ECG Project, visit www.cypressecgproject.org.