Five years after the state enacted a law requiring middle school and high school athletes to undergo a cardiac screening, lawmakers are thinking of expanding the rule to cover all New Jersey eighth graders.

The idea could be up for a vote in the state Senate Thursday at its first session of the new two-year legislative cycle. It is one of 26 bills on the Senate agenda.

Sheila Fisher, whose son Sean died during football practice on his 13th birthday in 2008, said the screenings should cover all students because sudden cardiac death isn’t limited to athletes.

“What happened to our son could have happened whether he was walking down the street or if he was a football field,” Fisher said.

A 2013 law requires a cardiac screening for any sixth through 12th grade students in public, private and parochial schools who are on interscholastic or intramural sports teams.

A 2015 law requires cardiac screenings in all physicals for people 19 years old and younger. Under the bill currently being considered, a certificate showing it was completed would have to be given to the school for all eighth graders.

James Fisher, Sheila’s husband, said 1 in 300 children are walking around at risk of sudden cardiac arrest. Screenings funded through a foundation created in Sean’s memory identified abnormalities in nearly 15 percent of Waldwick and Paramus students screened, according to numbers he cited.

“When one child is lost, thousands are affected. An entire community suffers,” he said.

Among those helped by the screenings arranged by the Fisher Foundation was Matthew Rypkema, who underwent a procedure for an irregular heartbeat identified at age 14 through a heart screening provided to freshmen athletes at Waldwick High School.

“I’ve seen the anguish in adults who have suddenly lost a child who was otherwise healthy,” Rypkema said. “My hope is that all kids will be given an opportunity to participate in a heart screening.”

James Fisher said administering a questionnaire is cost-effective and efficient.

“This is little to no burden on health care dollars and benefits are tremendous. If one life can be saved, it is well worth it,” he said.

But Republicans on the Senate Education Committee, which endorsed the bill in a party-line vote, questioned whether parents or schools would pay for the screenings.

“If it does not mandate the parents do, then the parents may well say, ‘Hey, you’re mandating it. You pay for it,’” said Sen. Sam Thompson, R-Middlesex.

“We’re often confronted with these type of issues – a good cause, valid reasons to support it, but on the other hand we have really issues about who’s going to pay for this,” Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, said. “We have affordability issues here in the state of New Jersey.”

Sen. Bob Gordon, D-Bergen, the bill’s sponsor, said the change would be common sense given that cardiac arrest is the second leading cause of death for people under the age of 25.

“Young people are walking around with these conditions. They need to know about it. They can be treated by medications and other means,” Gordon said.


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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com