It’s been 22 months since Maria Shanley lost her son Mike to sudden cardiac arrest due to an undiagnosed heart condition.
Mike, the youngest of six kids, was a fun-loving and active high school junior who started playing sports as a young boy, moving on to football and lacrosse in middle school and high school. He was active in Boy Scouts, proudly following in the footsteps of his brothers in becoming an Eagle Scout. Mike’s life was cut short at home due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and mitral valve prolapse, heart conditions that can be detected through cardiac testing.
Maria and her family have been without their beloved son and brother for close to two years, and the pain of losing him doesn’t get any easier.
Maria is more than a grieving mother, though. She is a mother intent on making sure no other mother has to go through what she has gone through, starting in her hometown of Bethel, Connecticut.
“Why is heart testing not part of routine checkups?” she asks with emotion. “Women get preventative mammograms. People get routine colonoscopies starting at 50. Why don’t our kids get preventative heart testing at the time they need it, when they are in high school?”
Maria’s mission of preventing future tragedy starts with building more awareness that sudden cardiac arrest is something that can, and does, happen to teens.
“The need for tests that can pick up these heart conditions is clear,” she says. “Looking back, there were signs that something wasn’t quite right with Mike, but not for a second did we associate it with a heart problem that could take his life.”
Starting with just a few hours after Mike’s birth, Maria noticed that her youngest child was breathing funny. When he began playing T-ball in his youth, Mike preferred staying put in the field versus hitting the ball and running the bases. During football, Mike often threw his helmet down in frustration, wanting to be faster. As a boy scout, he had to stop hiking mid-mountain during an outing to catch his breath.
To a kid, a parent, a coach—this would seem like growing pains, a normal part of an athlete’s life. Mike’s heart wasn’t functioning properly, but he didn’t know this. He pushed himself to do better, to get stronger. To participate in sports, Mike had passed year after year of sports physicals with no flags raised. There wasn’t testing performed to tell him that his heart could suddenly stop beating.
“Sudden cardiac arrest in students isn’t as rare as many people think,” states Maria. “I’m angry with the medical profession for not stepping up and doing more to save our kids, especially because these heart conditions can be easily detected.”
Maria is part of the movement of parents and organizations speaking out about the need for heart testing in schools, starting with her own Bethel High School. Though she thinks about the loss of her son every day, she knows what she is doing will save others from the grief she and her family have experienced.
Photo Courtesy of Maria Shanley
“Why am I doing this? Life is why. Mike is why,” she says with conviction.
Mike had wanted to go on a cruise when he became a senior in high school. Maria, her husband, and two of their children set sail instead. They did it for Mike. An honor student, Mike wasn’t there to walk across the stage at his high school graduation. Mike’s parents and three siblings walked proudly in his place in front of cheering parents and students. They did it for Mike.
To tell Mike’s story is to acknowledge there is something wrong with the current system, to acknowledge that change must happen. Students continue to die from sudden cardiac arrest—at school, on the field, at home—and that doesn’t sit well with Maria. She won’t stop pushing for schools to test their students. Why? Life is why. Mike is why.