High-tech chest protector thwarts sudden death in young athletes.
Sometimes rare means deadly. Each year in the U.S., an estimated 15 or 20 young athletes die from commotio cordis, the heart stoppage that occurs when a blow over the left ventricle, most commonly from a baseball, strikes the chest at just the wrong fraction of a moment between heartbeats. Even heavy gear, such as a catcher’s chest protector, has been shown to provide little protection in such cases.
But now Mark Link, ’86, a professor of medicine and director of cardiac electrophysiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and a nationally recognized expert in commotio cordis (“When the Heart Stops Cold,” Summer 2003), has partnered with a sports gear company called Unequal Technologies to create new and more effective protection from the hazard. They’ve spent nearly five years developing a chest guard made of high-grade composite material that offers protection against different impact speeds and types of projectiles while also being light, thin and flexible enough for general athletic wear.
Rob Vito, the head of Unequal Technologies, is confident that he and Link have hit the target. “It’s like our competitors are selling eight tracks and we have MP4s,” he told Newsweek. “Most chest protectors, if you remove the logos and the high price tags, all you’re left with is cheap couch foam.” Doctors at the New England Cardiac Arrhythmia Center at Tufts Medical Center tested Link’s new product in the lab and confirmed that the materials were likely to be effective in stopping commotio cordis. The results were published in March 2016 in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine.
“This is the first product to show improvement over a placebo, and that’s what’s so exciting,” said cardiologist Jeffrey Mandak, who serves on the science and health committee for U.S. Lacrosse, the national governing body for the sport. Mandak has been involved in studying commotio cordis since 2000.