A 2nd Act: Ensuring the Beat Goes On

Posted By on December 5, 2019
Sharon Bates with the Aspen University nursing students.

One million hearts and counting

By Judy Pearson

It wasn’t supposed to happen. Sharon Bates was never supposed to receive that phone call. Her son, Anthony, was a healthy 20 year old living his dream. In 1999, he had been recruited to play football for Kansas State University. On a sunny July day a year later, he was returning to his apartment after working out in the weight room when he passed out at the wheel, his car careening into a tree. On their arrival, the paramedics extricated him, discovering more than his injuries from the accident. Anthony’s heart was in severe distress. An emergency room ultrasound revealed an enlarged and damaged heart.

            By the time Sharon received the call and got on the first plane out of Phoenix, Anthony’s prognosis was dire. He was gone before his mother reached him. Anthony had no prior indication of heart issues and no family history. “How could a boy who had received 25 sports physicals in his lifetime have a heart condition?” Sharon asked everyone. Her questions were answered with a sad truth: Young Americans with no risk factors are never screened for cardiac issues.

            Every year, 12,000 children experience a sudden cardiac arrest. That’s 30 kids a day, and every three days it’s a high school athlete. But only one in 200 people suffer from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Anthony was that one. Sharon vowed that her son’s death would not be in vain. In 2001, she created the Anthony Bates Foundation with a two-fold mission. The first is to screen as many young athletes as possible so that no other mother would have to experience what she had.

            Her second mission is to raise awareness about hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and its counterpart, sudden cardiac arrest. “In Japan, kids are checked in kindergarten, seventh grade and when they enter high school,” Bates said. “In Italy, they started screening kids in 1974, beginning at the age of 12. And they’re screened every year they’re active in sports up to the age of 36. America sadly lags behind.”

            The foundation holds cardiac screening events for student-athletes throughout Arizona, Colorado and at Kansas State (where Anthony had played). Of course, the ultrasound machines required come with a hefty price tag. When she began, Sharon borrowed machines from manufacturers’ sales reps, which worked for several years.

            “The first ultrasound I actually owned came about as a result of Hurricane Katrina,” Bates said. “The first-floor office of a New Orleans radiologist was flooded, although his machine was on the second floor. By the time he relocated and was ready to open, new equipment had come onto the market. But his machine worked perfectly for our purposes!”

            Sharon bought a couple more demo machines from sales reps, and in 2014 obtained her own digital electrocardiogram machine. The foundation is also beginning to supply automatic external defibrillators for elementary schools.

            Equipment such as this doesn’t come cheap. Donations for screenings cover part of the costs, but they will conduct the screenings for free if necessary. As Sharon says, how can you put a price on a life? The foundation also holds fundraisers — walks and peer-to-peer fundraising contests — and gratefully takes monetary and in-kind donations.

            Of the many miracles the Anthony Bates Foundation has brought to families, one family experienced three. Bates said, “Scott, a young athlete, had been passing out on the football field. We screened him at one of our events.” Fortunately, his issue was exercise-induced asthma, a much more manageable condition to treat.

            “His father, Scott Sr., mentioned that he had been experiencing chest discomfort. He had pooh-poohed his symptoms, never going to a doctor, even though he had a family history. So we screened him on the spot and found a seven-centimeter aneurysm on his aortic arch,” Bates said. “Shortly after that, Scott Sr.’s father arrived for a visit, complaining of chest pains after getting off a plane. The family took him to the ER immediately, a trip that saved his life. Even more incredible was the fact that his cardiac nurse was the volunteer who had been at the two Scotts’ initial screenings!”

            Sometime during 2020, the Anthony Bates Foundation will conduct its 1 millionth screening. Not only is the number alone a remarkable achievement, but Sharon has also calculated what those hearts represent.

            “Now that those children who had issues will receive the kind of medical care and observation they’ll need, they’ll be productive members of society for another 60 years or more. Saving their lives means $3.4 billion is saved, as they become taxpayers, homeowners and get involved in giving back to their communities,” she said.

            Making sure those hearts keep beating is the best tribute a mother can give to her son.

            To learn more, go to anthonybates.org.

Judy Pearson

About Judy Pearson

Judy Pearson is a journalist, published author, and the founder of A2ndAct.org. Her organization supports and celebrates women survivors of all cancers as they give back to the greater good in their 2nd Acts. Her passion is finding those who have have healed themselves by helping others.