Valentine’s Day offers a loving reminder to get your heart checked by Laguna’s homegrown nonprofit Heartfelt 

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By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Laguna Beach Independent 

Hearts are ubiquitous this month as lovebirds and others exchange heart-shaped gifts for Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14. But February is just another heart-centric month for Holly Morrell and her cardiologist colleague Dr. Dawn Atwal, who think every day not about chocolate hearts, but the essential organ pumping away in everyone’s chests. 

Ali Aga, center, whose life-threatening heart condition was detected at a Heartfelt screening in 2018, is now a busy Southern Methodist University student who volunteers at Heartfelt screenings when she’s home from college. When Aga was a 14-year-old on the Dana Hills High School tennis team, she thought her racing heart was normal. Dr. Dawn Atwal of Laguna Cardiology, left, and Holly Morrell, founder of Heartfelt, work to avoid preventable deaths from sudden cardiac arrest through Morrell’s nonprofit. Photo/Heartfelt

The City of Laguna Beach will recognize the two women during American Heart Month for their extraordinary work saving lives through the early detection of heart disorders that can kill without warning. 

In 1999, Morrell founded Heartfelt, a nonprofit organization that offers quick, painless screenings using some of the most reliable detection tools: echocardiogram (ECHO – cardiac ultrasound ) and electrocardiogram (EKG/ECG) to detect risks for sudden cardiac arrest, which often results in immediate death. Such tests typically cost at least $1,500 and are not usually covered by insurance. 

A survivor of the hereditary heart disease hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, and seven heart surgeries, Morrell is driven to rewrite the story for others. HCM has claimed the lives of six of her relatives, including her father and his twin brother. Her life’s goal is to protect others – especially young people and athletes – from the tragedy of sudden cardiac death. 

One story successfully rewritten by Heartfelt was that of Ali Aga of Laguna Niguel. Aga had successful surgery for her life-threatening heart condition that was discovered at one of Heartfelt’s community cardiac screening events. Aga has completely recovered and is now a healthy, active college student at Southern Methodist University. She volunteers to assist at Heartfelt screenings when she is home from school. 

Cardiac arrest – the heart’s sudden cessation because of a disruption in its electrical current, usually resulting in sudden death – is entirely different from heart attack, often associated with lifestyle and diet. Athletes have a greater chance of sudden cardiac arrest because their hearts work harder.

There are several common causes of sudden cardiac death. The most prevalent is (HCM), a thickening of the heart muscle that can cause restricted blood flow. One person in about 400 has it. Heartfelt screenings can turn up congenital abnormalities (malformed heart structure at birth); myocarditis (resulting when a virus infects and weakens the heart); dilated cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the heart); Long QT syndrome (irregular heartbeat and fainting are common symptoms); Marfan syndrome (common in very tall individuals); Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (an extra electrical pathway exists in the heart).  

Dr. Atwal of Laguna Beach Cardiology, one of Morrell’s partners in her quest to save lives, is a sports fan whose dream was to screen young people and athletes for cardiac abnormalities. 

She voluntarily supervises screenings, reads and interprets results, and frequently offers one-on-one consultations with families whose loved ones have been identified as having a heart condition. She even gave Morrell a key to her office to make weekend screenings in a medical setting possible. Those who prefer a more private environment can arrange for home Heartfelt screenings. Additionally, employers can offer a life-saving perk to employees by engaging Heartfelt for a company-wide cardiac screening event at their offices. 

Atwal noted, “One to two percent of the individuals screened by Heartfelt have a serious heart issue. Through Holly’s efforts, nearly 60,000 people have been screened, saving thousands of lives over 25 years. I find this work very rewarding and will continue to do it until I can’t do it anymore.” 

According to Morrell, screening for hidden heart abnormalities should be available to all, regardless of ZIP code or income. Community event screenings are $100 as a suggested donation, but scholarships are available.

“We offer this service at a fraction of the actual cost, even though this is becoming an increasingly tall order, given the expense and effort involved. But I am here today because of detection and awareness. I want to prevent needless tragedies. Heartfelt is filling a need and saving lives.” 

To schedule a screening or donate, visit https://heartfeltscreening.org

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