By Mike Chambers
TRENTON, Ga. -- A Dade county mother of five is sounding the alarm on a fatal heart syndrome that took the life of her 3-year-old daughter.
Cecilia Balma -- nicknamed "George" by the family after a Warner Bros. cartoon -- died suddenly on April 7, 2009, while eating a bowl of cereal.
George's heart "just stopped, literally," said her mother, Jennifer Allen Balma.
"She was sitting with her 5-year-old brother, laid down and never moved again," Ms. Balma said.
Doctors eventually determined the death to be caused by "abnormal heart arrhythmia," an electrical malfunction in the heart that went undiagnosed in earlier medical examinations.
Trying to prevent the tragedy from happening to other parents, Ms. Balma recently contacted the Dade County Board of Education, asking members to make sure a list of specific questions is included during any physical exam of a student.
"Help me save someone else's angel," Ms. Balma pleaded to the board.
The board agreed to her request.
"Anyone whom a physical is required, we will certainly pass that on," said Dade County School Superintendent Patty Priest.
Since the change was procedural and not policy, it did not require a vote, Ms. Priest said.
Just getting the information down on a student's records is beneficial, said family nurse practitioner Jaime Harris.
"The more specific questions are a positive addition to health checks because if a patient has a strong family history of sudden death, discovered through these questions, it may warrant more lab work and tests like an electrocardiogram, which may present underlying health problems, which might have otherwise been missed," Ms. Harris said.
Among the questions are: "Are there any family members who died of heart problems before age 50?" or "Does your child become tired easily after anything, emotional or physical activity?" Any "yes" answer would give parents the chance to ask doctors to check the child's heart condition.
"My daughter's only symptom was that during long walks she would ask to be carried," said Ms. Balma.
Sudden arrhythmia death syndromes, or SADS, are genetic heart conditions that can cause sudden death in young, apparently healthy people. Warning signs include a family history of unexpected, unexplained sudden death under age 40; fainting or seizure during exercise, excitement or startle; consistent or unusual chest pain; and/or shortness of breath during exercise.
Source: SADS Foundation
"One person dies every two minutes in the United States from a sudden cardiac arrest, and they have no symptoms and have not been diagnosed, or misdiagnosed," she said.
"I believe knowledge is power. It could save lives."
She's now seeking higher awareness through the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes Foundation's fourth annual Climb to Conquer, taking place this week on Mount Rainier in Washington state. Twelve climbers will trek more than 14,000 feet up the mountain.
Ms. Balma hoped to raise $1,000 in donations for her sponsorship, but as of Thursday she had more than $2,000 in commitments, she said.
Working through the SADS Foundation, Ms. Balma said she got climber Kathy Engh, the only female climber, to represent "Princess George" at the top.
While the climbers raise money and publicity on Mount Rainer, Ms. Balma and George's siblings plan to raise money and awareness in Northwest Georgia.