A cardiac screening event has been planned for Saturday, May 8, at Wilton’s Comstock Community Center. The event is in memory of George DiRocco, a 16-year old Wilton resident who unexpectedly passed away last September due to an undiagnosed heart condition.
The screening will include a free ECG (electrocardiogram) for anyone ages 10-19. As of now, 216 ECG’s are being offered, but registration is expected to fill up quickly.
The event is being hosted by In A Heartbeat, a Connecticut-based non-profit dedicated to preventing death from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) and sudden cardiac arrest. Among other initiatives, the foundation works to raise awareness and donates automated external defibrillators (AEDs) to places that need them.
In addition to hosting the screening, In A Heartbeat is donating an AED to the Wilton community in DiRocco’s name. It will be located at the varsity baseball field.
GMW spoke to In A Heartbeat founder, Mike Papale. In 2006, Papale experienced sudden cardiac arrest at the age of just 17, despite being otherwise healthy and an athlete.
Like DiRocco, Papale had an undiagnosed heart condition. “I was lucky to survive,” he said.
Papale said he did not previously know the DiRocco family, but a mutual acquaintance made the introduction after the DiRocco family learned of the condition that led to George’s death.
“When these things happen in a community, it creates fear,” Papale said. “Unfortunately, these things do happen. The fear is, who else has something that isn’t diagnosed yet?”
Deb DiRocco, George’s mother, told GMW that she was aware that many in the community have those fears as a result of George’s experience, especially many of his friends and peers.
Alleviating that fear was something she was inspired to do for the community. “I felt very strongly that if there’s any way we can reach out to more people… because everybody here is scared, they’re terrified. I don’t blame them. I know our whole community is so devastated by this tragedy, and his friends, his peers are aching over it. I just thought, is there anything I can do?”
As Deb pondered that, her close friend, Dr. Lori Storch Smith, jumped in to help. A Wilton resident and a pediatrician with Bay Street Pediatrics (part of Connecticut Pediatric Partnership), Smith is volunteering at the event, along with two cardiologists from Columbia University Medical Center and other volunteers.
For George’s mother, alleviating community fears is one aim, but preventing tragedy is another. “If this screening brings his friends some peace of mind, then it’s done wonders, said Deb. “And if it finds something that somebody didn’t know about and prevents something horrible from happening, then thank God.”
And statistically, there’s a good chance the upcoming Wilton screening could identify someone who needs follow-up. Papale quoted data from other cardiac screening groups that 1 in 250 screenings like this will find something that should be pursued.
Papale has invited community members interested in volunteering to contact him. General volunteers or anyone in the medical field are needed. Expertise in ECGs is not required and a training session will be provided.
Papale also mentioned he was very pleased with his interactions with the Parks and Recreation Department and the facilities at Comstock. Privacy for the youth being screened is a top priority.
Papale emphasized the end goal is really about preventing tragedy. “We’re really passionate about saving lives from cardiac arrest. The philosophy of this [In A Heartbeat] program is that we can do some primary prevention. Let’s not wait until a child is in this life-or-death situation. Maybe we can detect something prior, and keep the child safe,” Papale said.
Deb experienced the unimaginable tragedy of discovering her child’s condition when it was too late. “It’s a hard pill to swallow, that maybe it could have been prevented,” she said.