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Chris Strevig back in his Eagle days.

Chris Strevig, back in his Eagle days.

Narrow Escape for Young Athlete

Metaphorically speaking, Christopher Strevig had lots of heart. A linebacker for the Northeast High School Eagles in Pasadena, Md., he’d earned his stripes as football-team captain with a one-two combination of boundless effort and high-energy enthusiasm. At age 17 he seemed the picture of health, which is why no one could have guessed that, medically speaking, Chris had lots of heart trouble, due to the rare, anomalous flow pattern of his right coronary artery.

The first sign that something was wrong surfaced during a 1977 game, when the ordinarily indefatigable Chris pulled himself out of the lineup because it felt like someone had knocked the wind out of him. Except that Chris hadn’t gotten hit at all. “I pretty much never went to the sidelines,” Chris recalls, “so everyone was pretty surprised to see me coming off the field.”

At practice later that week, Chris experienced a scary instant replay and once again ended up gasping on the sidelines. Eagles head coach Steve Sweet ordered the youth off the team until he’d seen a doctor. Chris’ mother, Patricia Strevig, took him to see the family’s pediatrician, Martin Berger, M.D., who trained at Hopkins in the early ’60s and immediately sent the teenager to cardiologist Jean Kan, M.D., head of pediatric cardiology here. An echocardiogram, followed by a catheterization, revealed that Chris’ right coronary artery followed a circuitous path between the aorta and the pulmonary artery on its way to the atrioventricular groove. During heavy exertion, the condition is potentially fatal, Kan says.

“This was a case of good family doctoring,” she adds. “Our job is easy, once patients get sent to us. It was Dr. Berger who took a look at Chris and decided to send him in. That was the critical thing.”

Though Chris’ individual condition is extremely rare, the incidence of young athletes with dangerous cardiac conditions is less so, as evidenced by the much-publicized deaths in recent years of basketball stars Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis. One study estimates that, nationally, at least 51 college athletes and 205 high school athletes have died of cardiac-related problems during the last 15 years. After the death of Florida Atlantic University basketball player Walter Turner, that school began requiring echocardiograms for all its athletes. Such a screening program is a long way from being routinely recommended, however, due in part to the expense of the tests—upwards of $1,000 apiece. (FAU’s testing program was financed by a private donation.)

A year has passed since Chris Strevig underwent single bypass surgery to correct his heart problem. He’s recently been cleared to play sports again, and now is a freshman at Anne Arundel Community College. He hopes to become a police officer someday, though that career plan is making his mother a little nervous. “He really wants me to worry, doesn’t he?” Patricia complains, jokingly. “Pretty soon, I’ll be the one headed to cardiology.”

—Jim Duffy