Hardcastle’s story reminds people of the dangers of heart problems in young athletes 

Lewis Hardcastle, whose dream it was to become a professional footballer, has recently retired from the sport after being diagnosed with a heart condition at 22. Hardcastle played at numerous clubs during his career, from being an academy player at Blackburn Rovers to having a successful loan spell at Salford City and finally Barrow, where his career came to an end.  

Hardcastle made the decision to retire from football after being diagnosed with Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC), a genetic heart condition that has been brought on early due to high levels of exercise.

ARVC is a disease of the heart that sees fatty fibrous tissue replaces normal muscle. This interrupts normal electrical signals in the heart and may cause irregular and potentially life-threatening heart rhythms. The heart also becomes weaker over time leading to heart failure.

Hardcastle recalls that “for a month or so I was getting dizzy spells when I was training, playing, even when I was at home”. Following these symptoms many investigations took place to find out what was causing them. Hardcastle had to stay at a heart hospital in Liverpool for a few days, where they monitored his heart. They decided to try and use medication to regulate his heart, however the rhythms were still reaching dangerous levels. 

“My doctor broke the news no footballer or young athlete should ever hear,” Hardcastle explains. “He told me my case was so severe that I needed an ICD implanted into my heart in order to save my life. He also advised that it would be unsafe to play football again, due to the risk of me having a cardiac arrest.”

Heart problems continue to destroy careers in football and other sports. Following the devastating news from his doctor Lewis still feels fortunate. “I have been extremely lucky to develop symptoms, as 80% of people with ARVC are only diagnosed when it is too late.”  

Following comments like these, one incident springs to mind, as this was nearly the case for former Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba. He was 23 years-old when he was left critically ill after collapsing during an FA Cup quarter-final tie against Tottenham. The midfielder had stopped breathing and was in effect dead for 78 minutes. He was then rushed to the Heart Attack Centre at The London Chest Hospital.  

It was later found out that Muamba went into cardiac arrest due to Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). The midfielder made a full recovery and announced retirement from football after being advised to by a cardiac doctor in Belgium. Following the incident there was a big push to make defibrillators an essential part of equipment at both a professional level and grass roots level. 

Hardcastle says: “If I can get one message across it would be to look out for the symptoms and get your heart checked as regular as possible. You never know what is round the corner and before you know it your career could be over like mine.” 

Hardcastle’s career come to an end with Barrow and he has been grateful for the club’s support, adding: “Barrow have been brilliant with me, all the staff and players have been regularly ringing me to check up on me. Also, all the support from my family and friends over social media has been really overwhelming.

“I am not sure what the future holds for me to be fair, but I do want to stay in the game in any way I can.” 

Lewis’ Message:

A Go Fund Me has been set up to help Lewis on his next adventure by his teammate. So far £11,000 of the £20,000 goal has been raised.

Many professional athletes have cardiac screenings regularly yet athletes who compete at lower levels such as grassroots don’t have that privilege. With many of the life-threatening heart problems not showing obvious symptoms, this is a serious issue.  

It is now mandatory that every player playing in the Premier League or any UEFA competition to have at least one ECG and Echo in their medical folder. Yet, there are thousands of people playing sports up and down the country every week.

This ignorance has sadly resulted in deaths which could of been prevented. Daniel Wilkinson, a 24-year-old non-league football player died during a game in 2016. It was later found that Wilkinson suffered from ARVC, which could have been spotted during a screening.

A project was set up in Italy to have all young people screened. Following the project there was an 89% drop in cardiac-related fatalities.

A similar project like this was pitched to Parliament in the UK but was sadly not given the go ahead as the UK’s National Screening Committee explained: “The available tests are not accurate enough to correctly identify conditions which could lead to sudden cardiac death without wrongly identifying many people with healthy hearts.”

Charities have been set up to help provide screenings for kids and adults who play sport at all levels. One charity is Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY). The charity’s aim is to provide screening for all athletes and do so by working with schools and sports clubs.

Here are some of the charity’s key messages:

  • Every week in the UK at least 12 apparently fit and healthy young people die of undiagnosed heart conditions.
  • In 80% of cases of young sudden cardiac death (YSCD) there are no prior symptoms.
  • CRY’s mission is to prevent young sudden cardiac death through awareness, screening and research, and to support families after a tragedy.
  • CRY promotes the choice for screening. All people aged 14 to 35 should have the choice to be screened. www.testmyheart.org.uk
  • 1 in 300 people will have potentially life-threatening heart condition.

Lewis’ story should and will be remembered for many reasons. Just like Muamba’s story is still to this day a reminder that athletes of all sport must be checked regularly to avoid devastating events such as his. With stories like these not always ending in a positive note, it is important to spread awareness and push for action like the work of CRY.

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