The Bodden Town community was devastated when footballer Gerome “Bird” Graham died suddenly at training from an undetected enlarged heart nine months ago.
He was only 20 and one of the most popular youngsters in the Cayman Islands, judging by the outpouring following his passing.
At least that tragedy may have helped save others because the Cayman Islands government teamed with a United States-based hospital to offer free intensive heart screenings last week to identify possible concerns with local athletes’ heart health.
Sixty-three high level teenage athletes were administered the free testing. Doctors found six abnormalities.
The screenings, which would normally cost about $750 apiece, were given free of charge. The cost of bringing the American medical professionals overseas to Grand Cayman cost nearly $10,000, which was paid for by local government.
The testing was conducted at the Heart Health Centre in West Shore Plaza on West Bay Road. Among those tested were 21 track and field athletes, 15 footballers, four swimmers, 11 multiple-sport athletes, two netballers, nine basketballers and one gymnast.
Also there were Graham’s brothers, Kareem James and Jondabe Darkin.
Visiting doctor Mikhail Kosibord said: “Congratulations on the successful athletic heart screening clinic. It is a wonderful accomplishment with real impact on the athletes’ lives and a perfect example of a successful collaborative effort from everyone involved.”
Dr. Kosibord revealed two are potentially serious conditions, with significant risk, which can impact ability to participate in sports unless appropriately treated.
One athlete had a previously unknown valve condition, which needs follow up, but does not preclude competitive sports at the moment.
Three were found to have elevated blood pressure, which will require at least lifestyle modifications, follow up attention and possibly treatment if the diagnosis of premature hypertension is confirmed in subsequent exams.
Health Minister Mark Scotland said: “We were really happy to have the clinic after Gerome Graham – Bird as everyone knew him – passed away last year.
“I knew Gerome from the age of 5 or 6 years old from the time he was playing in Bodden Town. It was a shock to us all by the way he passed away as he did.
“It gave us all an opportunity to find out more about sudden cardiac arrest.
“We gave a lot of thanks to Dr. Kosibord, Phillip Ebanks and the Heart Health Centre and St Luke’s Athletes’ Heart Clinic, Cayman Airways who helped them get here and Comfort Suites and the Marriott for providing rooms.
“These tests afford more rigorous tests than the average heart exam which pick up any abnormalities.
“The athletes tested were all 15-19 years old and at national level, high performing athletes. They train maybe four or five times a week so it’s good for them to find out if they have any abnormalities or need any further check ups.
“It’s good to see that we have Bird’s two brothers, Kareem and Jondane have their checks done and their results came back normal.
“These tests are available to anyone now but the issue is the cost. As medical technology improves you can find out more but it costs a lot more as well.”
Jennifer Ahearn, chief officer in the Ministry of Health and also a fitness instructor, said, “I think it’s great that these athletes are getting the opportunity of getting these tests, because as we saw with the tragedy last year even if you are outwardly incredibly fit and you’ve been a life-long athlete, you never know.
“So by having these tests done in the case of some athletes it can give them the confidence that everything is fine, can continue to play hard.
“And if there is the unfortunate situation of finding a problem at least they can live accordingly. If there is something that can be done they can be aware and hopefully prevent another tragedy.”
Kareem James said: “Sometimes growing up it was just me and Gerome, so it is all lonely now. Sometimes when I sit down and reminisce I really miss him. But everything happens for a reason. Maybe somebody else could have the same condition as my brother and this could save them.
“We at Bodden Town have dedicated this season to winning the Premier League for Bird. We are certain we can do it.”
Their grandmother, Martha Robinson, said: “Gerome was a special boy. I miss him so much. His place could never be filled. Although he was so young he used to act like a grown up. I used to enjoy having him around me all the time.
“I’m sorry they didn’t have these tests before, so perhaps if they had he would be alive now. But I’m still glad they’ve started to do it.”
Dr. Kosiborod and Dr. Anthony Magalski are cardiologists and medical directors of the athletic heart clinic of the Mid-America Heart Institute, Kansas City, Missouri. They came with coordinator Marsha McCoy.
Dr. Magalski said: “Most athletes when they die suddenly they die from an unsuspected, previously undiagnosed heart condition. These tests identifies the athlete before the catastrophe can happen.
“It takes an event like that to make people recognise how important this can be.
“In Cayman, like we’ve had as in Kansas and other areas of the US where an athlete’s death will trigger a more thorough evaluation of athletes.
“There are multiple causes and we try to identify as man of those as we can through the screening that they’re getting, both through electrical and structural.”
Dr Magalski added feels that Cayman’s hot and humid weather along with the exertion involved in sports like football are big risk factors.
“You also have to alert the athlete about any other supplements or drugs they might put in their system because that can also put an athlete at risk.
“It’s been great being here and we thank Minister Scotland and the Heart Health Centre for hosting us.”