Deadly Heart Condition Leads to Teens’ Crusade to Proactively Test Young Athletes
Growing up in small-town Texas, Kooper Horton was an all-around athlete with big dreams. At 12 years old, he was already in love with basketball and was preparing for his role as starting quarterback for his 7th grade team. But on August 23, 2012, just four days before his debut, Kooper received some news that would keep him off the field—and keep him alive.
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The news was a diagnosis of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), an abnormal thickening of the heart muscle that can restrict blood flow and cause sudden cardiac arrest. It is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes, most often during physical activity. Bottom line: it was no longer safe for Kooper to participate in the sports he loved.
This devastating blow to a just-beginning and promising athletic career would cause many to lose hope, but not Kooper; he was thinking much bigger than himself. Kooper’s younger brother Case had been the first to be diagnosed, after a bout with pneumonia led to an echocardiogram. HCM is often hereditary, and testing performed on family members revealed that not only Kooper had the deadly disease, but also his younger sister Kenna Mae and many extended family members. Case’s pneumonia had likely saved multiple lives.
“I found out about my HCM just four days before I was starting football,” says Kooper, now 16 years old. “It’s really scary to think about what would have happened if I would have continued playing. And it’s even scarier to think about what could have happened to my little brother and sister. My brother did everything I did, so he was already playing sports, and Kenna Mae was also very active. I wasn’t so concerned about not playing ball at that point, but making sure my family was safe.”
To shift his attention away from the sports he could no longer play, Kooper became involved in the agriculture club in high school. Though he still misses basketball, Kooper has channeled his energy into club activities, which has shaped him into a strong leader. The young teen is now on a mission to increase awareness of his disease and promote cardiac testing among other young athletes like himself.
Even though HCM has affected so many in Kooper’s family, there is a Horton sibling who was spared the deadly disease, and it happens to be, ironically, the one who likes sports the least—Kooper’s older sister, Kate.
“It was really hard for Kate to see us go through this,” says Kooper. “Harder than I think people realize, and I think she felt pressure to start playing sports because we couldn’t, even though she didn’t really enjoy them.”
Kate admits to feelings of guilt over not being able to do anything for her siblings. “People say to me, ‘you must feel so blessed to not have this’, but that’s not the case at all,” she says. “If I could trade places with Kooper, I would in a heartbeat!”
Kate exhibits an amazing strength of character at just 18 years old. Being ultra-aware of the fact that if Kooper were to collapse from his HCM, CPR would be critical, and she wanted her school to be prepared should that happen. She and her brother teamed up on an FCCLA project to bring awareness of heart conditions to their classmates and to teach them how to perform CPR. Their work on the project earned them 1st place at both the Regional and State level competitions. At Kooper’s prompting, the pair expanded their project to include a plan for proactively testing students for heart conditions, securing them a 1st place finish at Nationals.
The siblings have grown closer through Kooper’s journey and their work together on the project, and they are committed to turning their family’s situation into something positive by spreading awareness about sudden cardiac arrest and the importance of early detection.
“Our cousin’s HCM is much worse than my siblings, and he already has an implanted defibrillator,” Kate explains. “Had he not been tested when he was, I’m not sure if he would be with us today. When you can’t play sports it’s heartbreaking, but it would be so much more heartbreaking if we lost someone. I truly don’t know what our lives would have been like if…,” she trails off.
Kooper adds, “The first time I heard about students being tested at school was when my cousin sent me an article about the testing Wimbledon Health Partners did at Stephenville High School. I knew we needed to bring that to Quanah.”
Kate and Kooper’s mission to save lives is in full force, and they are thinking big picture. The siblings have already received the support of their principal to set up testing at their high school, and Kate would tell you that she is determined in making sure every student in her class is tested, including her cheerleading squad. Kooper indicates that taking Wimbledon Health Partners’ testing to area schools beyond their small town is also a priority.
Kooper says, “In small towns like ours, sports are our life! Young athletes think they are invincible. If they feel fine, they must be fine. Even if there are symptoms, we don’t know they are symptoms. I felt more tired than usual but didn’t associate it with a heart problem. I thought I was out of shape, that I needed to work harder to get stronger. Now that I understand the disease, I see that working out more could have cost me my life. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to anyone.”
Kate adds, “Yes, it can be devastating to be told you can’t play, but you shouldn’t be thinking about not playing. You should be thinking about not dying. Parents don’t believe there is anything wrong with their kids. They don’t understand the magnitude of this problem. I’m willing to go as far as I can to make them aware, and to make sure their kids get tested.”
And that is a powerful message from a determined high school senior.
Wimbledon Health Partners is the industry leader in on-site diagnostic testing for athletic programs and physicians nationwide. For more information about Wimbledon Health Partners’ Athletic Testing Program, please click here.
Testing is offered to students in the Quanah Independent School District ages 12 and up. You can secure your child’s testing appointment now by clicking here and you can easily access the paperwork by clicking the image below.