Medical examiner's new policy aimed at saving lives

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new policy with the Kent County Medical Examiner's Office is aimed at saving lives. 

It's focused on genetic heart problems that cause sudden deaths, usually in young people.

This involves deaths like that of Grand Rapids Drive Player Zeke Upshaw earlier this year. The idea is that genetic testing will give families answers about the death of their loved one and provide the surviving family a heads up of any possible health threats they may have. 

"Our first significant case was about 10 years ago," said Kent County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cohle. 

Like many of these cases, it happened on the basketball court. 

"A young man died after making a winning basket after a regional basketball tournament in high school," Cohle said.

It was Wes Leonard, a student at Fennville High School. Teammates hoisted him in the air moments before he collapsed. He died of an enlarged heart, which falls under cardiomyopathy, which is caused by a genetic mutation. That is also the case for channelopathies. Both cause the person to have a sudden and fatal heart rhythm. 

Cohle said it can be simple everyday things that set it off. 

"A loud noise or like an alarm clock startles a person, it puts their heart into this lethal rhythm," he explained.

Also included are things like strenuous exercise or experiencing strong emotions of joy or sorrow.

Under a new policy, the Kent County Medical Examiner's Office now orders genetic testing for all deaths that happen suddenly and without a clear cause. If the results are positive for a genetic mutation, Cohle recommends that the family gets tested as well. 

View the full story on Wood TV 

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