SADS victim’s father calls for more heart screening

Ireland Under-19 rugby player John McCall
Ireland Under-19 rugby player John McCall

A father who lost his 18-year-old son to an undetected heart defect has called for parents to “grasp the nettle” and get their children screened.

Ian McCall, whose son John died 15 minutes into a rugby game in March 2004, said that while heart screening is not foolproof it is the only real means we currently have in the fight against Sudden Adult Death Syndrome.

While no official post-mortem result has been made public as to the cause of six-year-old Harry Starrett’s death in Armagh last week, the family minister Canon John McKegney said the young boy is thought to have died of an undetected heart defect.

Ian McCall, who lives just a mile from the Starretts, visited the family on Thursday and said they are shell-shocked and devastated by their son’s death.

Screening is normally recommended for people aged between 14 and 35 and Ian said the situation his neighbours have found themselves in is truly tragic.

“The problem with SADS is there are no symptoms,” he said. “It is not like someone having a heart attack where they experience pain and there may be warning signs. Young Harry did not have any symptoms, he was running around like any wee six-year-old boy. John had no symptoms either.”

Ian said that, while the public is more aware of heart screening now, there is “still a perception that it won’t happen to us”.

He called for a partnership to be created between SADS charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) and the health service here.

“I am not saying screening is foolproof or that it is the answer,” he said. “But it is the best we have for now and the statistics have shown it does work

“Italy has the lowest incidence of sudden heart deaths in all of Europe - they screen their children in secondary school If they can do it, why can’t we?

“Every time something is detected it makes screening worthwhile. If we have to screen X amount of people and we detect something and one life is saved then it is worth it. Every problem that is identified is a life saved.”

Ian said he is well aware of the financial constraints in the current climate which could mean screening is not possible.

But he added that saving the lives of young people needs to be a priority.

“I am a realist,” he said. “Certainly there is not an endless pot of money but we are talking here mainly about the deaths of young people and I cannot emphasise enough how much that just does not add up for me.

“When a young person dies - for me that is the one death that just doesn’t add up. They are taken away from society and society is at a loss.

“Young Harry had his whole life ahead of him, as did John and numerous others too.

“If those deaths can be prevented it is worth it. Screening our secondary school students would mean screening 14,000 kids a year. I know there would be a great number of incidences highlighted.”

CRY offers free heart screenings and can be contacted at