Heart disease plays no favorites

  • Written by By Jeff Vorva and Kelly White

Photo by Jeff Vorva


Photo by Jeff Vorva

Richards sophomore Nick Aggelopoulos stands in front of a bulletin board full of hearts with the names of students who will receive EKG tests on Feb. 24. Aggelopoulous found he had a heart disease last year when he received an EKG a little more than a year ago.


When he was a freshman, Nick Aggelopoulos was a football player who started the season on the freshman team at Richards and eventually worked his way to up to varsity.

A few months later, on Jan. 10, 2014, he passed out while working out.

Wait a minute.

Conventional wisdom suggested this wasn't right.

Aggelopoulos was a football player since kindergarten. He was in good shape. Why in the heck did he pass out after a routine workout?

As he and others are learning, heart disease plays no favorites. It can strike at any time. It doesn’t matter if you are athletic, appear to be physically fit or never picked up a barbell in your life, heart disease can target anyone.

It targeted Aggelopoulos in January and caused him to get examinations and an electrocardiogram, which showed he had Wolff-Parkinson-White, a birth defect of the heart. This is where the heart has an extra electrical pathway, which can sometimes cause arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death.

Friday will be the one-year anniversary of heart surgery – cardiac ablation -- that Nick received and he is glad he is still around to recognize the date.

                “It’s hard to believe it’s been a year,’’ he said. “I look at life differently now. Before, I would be rushing to get to what’s next. What’s next? What’s next? What’s next? Now I look at what gifts I have. I take a step back and realize how lucky I really am.’’

                He played football again his sophomore season and is trying to tell as many of his peers as he can about getting EKGs as a preventive measure.

The Young Hearts for Life organization has been bringing groups of qualified community volunteers to Chicago area high schools to provide free EKG screenings to all of its students and will be stopping off at Richards, 10601 Central Avenue, on Feb. 24.

             Young Hearts for Life stresses early heart screening for teenagers and young adults to foresee any potential cardiac conditions that may need further attention during the aging process. More than 500 of Richards’ 1,700 students signed up and officials are hoping for more. Aggelopoulis is trying to get the word out to his peers.

                “It’s cool to be involved in helping other kids,” he said. “If we can save one of those 500, it would be worth it. Or 20 out of 500. Or even all 500.”

                You don’t have to convince his mother, Paula. She saw firsthand what you can learn from and EKG.

“I am a firm believer in the necessity of EKG’s,” she said. “My son on occasion, especially the year leading up to his workout incident, complained of chest pain at football practice. He told me his heart pounded a lot at summer practice, told me his chest felt tight. We told him, ‘take your inhaler, it’s probably your asthma.’”

                "Over the years we have been bothered by stories of young people dying," Dr. Joseph Marek founder the Young Hearts for Life Cadiac Screening Program said.

                According to the American Heart Association, it is estimated that 3,000 young adults are victims of sudden cardiac death each year in the United States and that 50-to-60 percent of these deaths may have been prevented through a simple, inexpensive heart screening.

Unfortunately Oak Lawn Community High School student, Tim Nickos, was one of the cardiac victims in 2011.

                “He was a normal, everyday kid, and he happened to be in really good shape,” Tim’s father, Dale Nickos said about his son who died in between his junior and senior year.

                Tim loved music, video games and playing trumpet for the Spartans marching band, his father said. He was a standout swimmer who was to become captain of the team his senior year. He displayed no symptoms of a heart condition. And at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, he seemed to be the picture of health until the day he didn’t wake up in 2011, when he died in his sleep of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy leaving his family stricken with shock.

                “We had no idea that he had a heart condition,” Nickos said, “We found out in the autopsy four months after he had passed away.”

                As sad as the loss has been, Nickos said he finds strength and purpose in sharing the story publicly, not only to keep his son’s memory alive but to help prevent this kind of loss from happening again. He emphasized the importance of an early EKG screening and how it can save lives.

                “As parents, we want our children around forever,” he said, “I do love the fact that the loss of my son, Tim, is helping to save others. This alone helps to keep Tim’s memory alive. Of course I wish I could turn back time and get him tested a year before he passed, but I can’t do that. So I have decided to do whatever I can to make sure that this will never happen to another student and their family. No parent should ever have to go through this.”

                District 218 spokesman Bob McParland said there are several reasons why teenagers are avoiding cardiac screenings. He said students think they are bulletproof, many parents don’t view cardiac issues seriously in regard to teenagers, students have fear because they think it will hurt. McParland added that since high school physicals do not include an EKG, students have no idea whether they have a cardiac issue of concern.

                McParland said the free cardiac screening taking place at Richards High School is painless and offered to all students.

                Since the Young Hearts for Life program launched in 2006, more than 12,000 volunteers have been trained and more than 110,000 students have been tested, making Young Hearts for Life the largest screening program in the United States.

                “It doesn’t matter if they are athletes, band members, mechanics, ROTC or drama students, everyone has a heart and my hope is that each and every student gets the opportunity to live their longest life and enjoy each moment they get growing old,” Aggelopoulos said.