When Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin experienced a sudden cardiac arrest during a game on live TV, it was an eye-opening reminder to the world about heart health. It was also something that struck especially close to home in Wilton for Artie and Deb DiRocco, whose son George died in September 2020 at the age of 16 after experiencing SCA due to an undiagnosed heart condition.

Spreading awareness about SCA and getting as many children as possible screened for unknown heart conditions has become their mission as a way to honor George.

“[Heart disease] is the number one cause of death in the U.S. Equally as important to know, sudden cardiac arrest is the number one cause of death in teen athletes. Twenty kids a day in this country die from sudden cardiac arrest,” Artie said, before adding an important point: “The causes of that sudden cardiac arrest are 95% detectable with a simple ECG.”

The DiRoccos now partner with a CT-based nonprofit called In A Heartbeat founded by Mike Papale, a man who survived SCA as a 17 year old. Papale’s mission is to prevent death from SCA by raising money and awareness, teaching about the importance of CPR and automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and to provide AEDs and emergency training to communities, schools and organizations.

Next week, the DiRoccos are hosting a free cardiac screening event in Wilton offering electrocardiograms (ECGs) to children and young adults ages 8-25. They hope to accomodate as many as 200-300 people.

The screening event is on Monday, Feb. 13, from 6-9 p.m. at Comstock Community Center. Screenings take just 10 minutes, and Wilton residents can register their children online for the event at no cost.  

This is the second free screening event the DiRoccos are hosting. The first one, held just a few months after George died, was profound.

“We screened about 200 kids. We found five kids that needed follow up. Even finding one kid that needed a follow up is tremendous,” Deb said. “All the kids are fine, they all had different reasons for checkups, but it made you realize we’re doing this for a good reason. Artie and I went to a screening at Fairfield Prep a few months ago. While we were there for like an hour, they flagged five kids that needed to be followed up, some right away. It makes you realize that it’s really vital.”

Given the statistics for SCA and young athletes, the screening is something they hope parents will seriously consider doing for their children.

“What we are offering is a 95% chance that we will detect something that could cause you to go into cardiac arrest. When they go into certain cardiac arrest, you’ve got about two minutes to hit someone with a defibrillator. Demar Hamlin, they have trained medical staff on the field with defibrillator in hand, which is why he’s still here. This doesn’t always happen on a playing field with medical staff around,” Artie said. “This can happen anywhere at any time, to anybody.”

The screenings on Monday are offered to any child, whether they are involved in athletics or not. Readouts from the ECG screenings will be sent for review by cardiologists who volunteer their time, and parents will be notified of the results shortly after the event.

‘More George’ for Screenings and More

The screenings they host are part of a more formalized effort that Deb has created, called “More George.” The DiRoccos view More George as a Wilton chapter of In A Heartbeat dedicated to saving more lives through raising money in order to donate defibrilators, educating and raising awareness, and holding CPR trainings, in addition to hosting ECG screenings.

Deb and Artie have also been working on the legislative front with State Rep. Tom O’Dea on a bill that was proposed this session mandating heart ECG screenings as part of the sports physical for student athletes.

“Currently the student athlete physical does not check for the number one cause of death of that group of people. And hopefully Connecticut passes this law and these free screenings [like the one we are hosting] will be rare in the future because everyone’s going to get one as part of their physical,” Artie said. 

Deb says their work is a way to honor George’s legacy,

“We’ve learned so much about George since he passed. The minister at his memorial service got to the heart of it [when he said], ‘We need more kindness and more compassion, we need more people that are a beacon of light like George.’ So we want be his beacon of light,” she said, explaining where the name ‘More George’ originated.

Teaching what they’ve learned about heart disease and SCA is critical to them.

“Your heart cannot be started again unless you have a defibrillator right there if you’re having cardiac arrest. We didn’t know that. So if we didn’t know that, how many other people don’t know that? I just want to save another family from going through this. There’s a lot we’ve learned and a lot more we can learn. And I just feel like we can touch the community this way,” Deb added.

She said they plan to grow the effort to surrounding communities too, reaching out to other school districts and towns.

“My goal is to say, ‘Let’s get some dates, let’s have a conversation, can you do it during your school day? Can you do it in a community center? I’m going to get it set up for you.’ I’m sending a letter to administrators of all of the surrounding schools and towns and telling them why we’re doing this again and asking if they want to come and see exactly what it is in Wilton,” Deb explained, adding, “Mike [Papale] wants to do a couple of screenings a month if he can. That’s how important it’s to him, and I just want to drag him around to everybody who will listen.”

“We have the ability to do this and we want to take advantage of the ability and interest in doing it and at least get Wilton screened — and then move on to the next town and see how many kids that we can get screend,” Deb said.

It’s a message they believe bears repeating and that, pardon the pun, Wilton families should take to heart, especially next Monday.

“The most important thing to know about sudden cardiac arrest is that there are no warning signs. The symptom is your heart stops. That is the symptom. And if you are not in a place that has the ability to immediately assess and immediately defibrillate your heart, you’re likely not going to make it. This is an opportunity to get their child screened for free. Please take advantage of it. You just never know,” Deb said. “So why would you not take the chance of this? It’s very simple. It’s non-invasive. It literally takes five minutes.”

One reply on “With ‘More George’ to Honor their Late Son, the DiRocco Family Brings Free Cardiac Screening Event to Wilton”

  1. What a great gesture by the DiRocco Family. All parents with kids in this age group should take advantage of this terrific opportunity to be screened.

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