Jonathan Rohr (second from left) is pictured here in 2011 with then members of the National Triathlon Team. Photo courtesy Thaddeus Price
ST JOHN’S, Antigua -- A campaign to educate athletes here about underlying heart conditions that can result in sudden death is being undertaken by AUA Tinman Rohr Triathlon organizers and the American University of Antigua.
Two years ago the local triathlon and AUA community were shocked when without warning and despite being in near perfect health, 25-year-old Jonathan Rohr passed away suddenly in his sleep.
The athlete was posthumously diagnosed to have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) - a genetic heart disease which affects 1 in 500 people and has been known to result in sudden death in extreme athletes.
“HCM is difficult to detect and differentiate from the common athletic heart. The failure to correctly diagnose the difference leaves an affected extreme athlete in a Russian roulette scenario... risking suicide by athletics,” said his father, John Rohr.
The most common cause of sudden death among young athletes is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
“The symptoms are either the fatigue or the thickening of the heart,” said Dr Elias Jackson, assistant professor in the Department of Medical Physiology and Neurosciences at AUA.
Jackson, who was speaking on an Observer Radio programme to highlight the disease, explained HCM can result in sudden death in “individuals who are highly competitive athletes”.
“They may go on for years without even knowing they have it then all of a sudden they die.”
For any person and athlete in particular who has a family history of heart disease, Jackson recommends getting evaluated by a physician and a cardiologist with experience in such diseases.
“The bottom line is that any, repeat any, extreme athlete with any warning sign should get a full and complete cardio workup to unequivocally eliminate any possibility of HCM issues,” stressed John Rohr.
Jonathan was a founder of the Tinman Rohr triathlon, which was named in his honour after his death.
Tinman Organisers are using the event to spread the message on HCM to prevent other athletes in Antigua and Barbuda facing the same fate as Jonathan. Towards this end Jackson, who has already appeared on radio programmes to speak about HCM, will speak to an estimated 200 athletes at the race briefing and ‘pasta party’ to be held the night before the event at AUA on Saturday September 21.
John Rohr recalled there were several warning signs displayed by his son that can be used to detect the problem in other athletes.
He said in Junior High a slight heart murmur was discovered during his son’s first physical.
“The family care physician did not believe it was anything threatening and did not refer him for further examination. We were told that many people have murmurs, and not to worry about it,” he said.
During college, Jonathan noticed palpitations and hypertension, and went to the University of Central Florida medical clinic that then referred him to a local cardiologist in Orlando.
“This was the time the medical community should have intervened. Jonathan's EKG showed a spike that was off the chart. The cardiologist seemed to do a normal workup and a stress EKG, but failed to do definitive testing to rule out HCM,” said John Rohr.
“The cardiologist knew that Jonathan was an extreme athlete. He also certainly knew about the potential dangers of extreme athletics in patients with similar symptoms, yet rather than doing a full and complete workup, he guessed that Jonathan had "a probable athletic heart."
Jonathan’s father said he wants to get the message across that heart issues should never be assumed benign for an extreme athlete.
“The potential for disaster is so great with any heart issue in an extreme athlete,” he said.
On September 22, over 70 AUA students and staff will take part in the half-iron distance triathlon to honour Jonathan’s memory alongside hundreds of athletes from Antigua and Barbuda and the region.
Jonathan’s uncle Jeff Emmons will also compete using his nephew’s old bike and the honoree’s mother Sybil Emmons will travel from Texas to witness the AUA Tinman Rohr Triathlon.