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After losing daughter to sudden cardiac arrest, mother helps teens test for heart disease


Makenzie Rupp, 13, of West Manchester Township, York County, prepares for a blood pressure check during the Peyton Walker Foundation heart screening clinic at the Apple Hill Medical Center in York Township, York County. (Submitted)

Julie Walker’s daughter Peyton was 19 and studying to be a physician’s assistant at King’s College when she died from sudden cardiac arrest.

Since her daughter’s passing, Walker, of Camp Hill, Cumberland County, has made it her mission to get children and teenagers screened for heart problems. 

“We really really just want to raise awareness and encourage parents to get your kids screened,” Walker says. “They may look healthy, they may act healthy, but until you get an EKG done, you don’t know what’s going on in that kid’s heart.”

A condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy runs in the Walker family. Julie has had surgery as a result of it, and Peyton was on medication when she died in 2013.

Walker says, although her family knew about Peyton’s condition, many cases of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy are not diagnosed until cardiac arrest occurs. Sudden cardiac arrest is the number one killer of student athletes and the number one cause of death on college campuses. 

Walker says early detection can help increase the odds of a long life for those with an underlying heart condition such as the one Peyton had. 

She wants to see EKG testing become a routine part of physicals, and she’s not alone. Similar groups across the country — often founded by families who have lost a child to cardiac arrest — have pushed for increased heart screenings. 

However, the medical community has shown concerns with routine EKG testing. The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommended in 2014 against mass EKG screening, noting that sudden cardiac death is rare in teens and false positives generate “excessive and costly second-tier testing.”

Read: Heart screening for teens may cause more problems than it solves

A 2017 NPR report states that as many as 1 in 10 EKGs detects a potential abnormality, and the emotional and financial toll of such a finding can be significant — especially when it turns out to be wrong.

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Peyton Walker was a sophomore at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, studying to be a physician’s assistant, when she died of sudden cardiac arrest related to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. (Submitted)

For Walker, however, there’s no question about the value of the screenings — even if it means taking on additional testing costs. “I’d rather have a false positve than not know anything at all.”

She points to cases where her foundation’s screenings have led to diagnoses that resulted in surgery or other treatment for serious heart conditions. The Peyton Walker Foundation has screened over 1,200 people so far, and at almost every screening event, a few students receive guidance from doctors to seek additional testing.  

The events also teach students CPR, how to use an AED device and how to look for a potential heart problem, with symptoms including light-headedness, and fatigue or fainting after exercise. 

The program is funded by donations and is also supported by health systems including UPMC Pinnacle, WellSpan Health, Penn State Health and Lancaster General Health-Penn Medicine. All EKG testing is done by physicians and is free to the public.

As a note of disclosure, Penn State Health and WellSpan provide financial support to our Transforming Health project.