(CBS) — The death in the past week of a West Side teen who collapsed during a basketball tournament may provide medical science with a way to determine how to find and treat the rare condition that killed him.

When Tarcia Patton made the difficult decision to turn off the life support that kept her 16-year-old son, Jermaine Cullum, breathing, she told Loyola University Medical Center specialist Dr. Jeffrey Winterfield that she would give Jermaine’s heart to him, for research purposes.

Reached at a conference in San Francisco, Winterfield told WBBM that the decision is huge and that it could kickstart research into the condition that killed the young athlete.

Winterfield said the condition is rare, and said donations of the heart under such circumstances are exceedingly so. He said that first, he will study the heart for obvious abnormalities. If nothing is found, he said he will order what is known as a “molecular autopsy.”

“That’s where blood or tissue is sent for genetic analysis to identify potential candidate genes that would be associated with an increased susceptibility to lethal
ventricular arrythmias,” he said.

That is what killed Jermaine, who appeared outwardly healthy, as did a string of athletes from high school age up who suffered sudden, unexplained deaths over the years.

Winterfield opposes the idea of standard testing for athletes. He said there is too little known currently about the problem, and said the chances for false positives from such an approach are great, although he said any apparently healthy athlete who collapses and lives should be tested.

One such case that ended in death was that of Loyola Marymount (Cal.) forward Hank Gathers, who collapsed at the free throw line three months before his March 1990 death, which also occurred during a game. Gathers, who was a Loyola Marymount senior and was projected as an NBA lottery pick before his death, had been prescribed a heart medication, Inderal, but was rumored to have skipped dosages on game days.

Winterfield said if a breakthrough is made because of the testing, or research points to certain genes, those closest to Jermaine could be among the first tested — and saved.

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