Fennville, Mich., high school basketball star Wes Leonard collapsed and died of a heart condition Thursday night soon after scoring an overtime lay-up to assure his team a perfect 20-win season.
There are various types of enlarged hearts, and quite often they catch headlines when an athlete suddenly dies on the court or during practice. Dilated cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart muscle has been caused to expand, weakening the heart’s walls, especially the ventricles, causing an ineffective ability to pump blood through the body.
There are various causes for this condition, but none has been given for Leonard’s condition at this point. One of the multiple reasons for dilated cardiomyopathy is what’s called myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart muscle caused by a virus or immune system problem.
Media reports say Leonard had also just recently gotten over a bout with the flu, but it would still be speculation to say that is the exact cause.
There are often no symptoms for the heart condition at first, but being tired or short of breath are common, both conditions that may not be readily noticed in a young athlete who was preparing for or just finishing a competitive game, and had recently had the flu.
Enlarged hearts are not uncommon in the general population, but they are rarer among young people. The condition often comes to light when an athlete suddenly dies (there is a related condition of an enlarged heart called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is often cited as a sudden cause of death), and the media reports on it because it seems so hard to believe a trained athlete could suffer a heart problem.
Leonard, who was also the quarterback of his high school’s football team, reportedly worked very hard to be in peak physical condition, but that would not necessarily prevent dilated cardiomyopathy.
There have been more efforts in recent years to give high school and college athletes more strenuous physicals to help detect any heart abnormalities, but there is no reassurance it would always make a difference.
This episode, in a word, is just simply tragic.
Executive Editor, WebMD