Reggie Lewis, a superstar NBA player with the Boston Celtics, died at the age of 27 on July 27, 1993. He collapsed suddenly during an off-season practice at Brandeis University and received bystander CPR, but was pronounced dead at a local hospital a couple hours later. The cause of his death was attributed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a condition characterized by hypertrophy (enlargement) of the heart walls and a susceptibility to potentially lethal arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeat).
There’s an interesting twist to Lewis’s story, though. It turns out that 3 months earlier, he passed out during an NBA playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets on April 29, 1993. He was evaluated by a prominent group of cardiologists at the New England Baptist Hospital and was diagnosed with HCM. Those doctors admitted that there was often some difficulty in distinguishing HCM from the “athlete’s heart syndrome,” the normal enlargement of the heart due to cardiovascular training, but they recommended that Lewis no longer play basketball.
Lewis sought additional opinions, first from physicians at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston and later at UCLA. The cardiologists at Brigham & Women’s Hospital felt that Lewis did not have HCM, but rather had collapsed from a relatively harmless condition known as neurogenic syncope. The doctors at UCLA weren’t able to reach a definitive diagnosis.
We can understand why any professional athlete would be conflicted with the recommendation that he no longer play, but as we know now, the result was tragic.
This story illustrates the common scenario of sudden death in athletes who, unknowingly, have HCM….and illustrates the common problem that HCM can be difficult to distinguish from “athlete’s heart syndrome.”