The death of 10-year-old Patrick Breen, who collapsed while playing gaelic football for his village team in Tyrone, is an enormous tragedy for his family. They could never have envisaged what would befall the young boy when he set off for training earlier this week. After all, he was taking part in sport, the very kind of activity that health experts encourage among the young.
There is scarcely a parent in the land who did not shudder when they heard of Patrick's death. It does not seem right that a sport-loving youngster, not yet out of primary school, should die in such a totally unexpected way. Imagine the anguish any parent would feel at such a hammer blow.
Patrick's death is the latest tragedy to hit gaelic games, particularly in Tyrone. It was the death of one of the county's shining stars, Cormac McAnallen, which first brought the problem of sudden cardiac death to public attention. Cormac's family helped set up a trust which distributes life-saving defibrillators to GAA clubs throughout Ulster and also to train club officials in first aid. That is a tremendous legacy to come out of that family's tragedy.
Although first aid and a defibrillator were both immediately available when little Patrick collapsed, neither could save his life. Such intervention may work on occasions, but there is no guarantee that every person in distress will respond. That is why many people will agree with the father of Cormac McAnallen who has called for all young athletes to be screened for potential cardiac defects. Prevention is always better than cure.
Screening programmes are available. One, funded by a charity at the University of Ulster, has already discovered several sports players with potential health problems which require further investigation. Family doctors can also carry out screening. The problem with such programmes is that it would be prohibitively expensive for amateur sporting organisations to fund screening for every player at every age level.
The onus may well have to fall on individuals to pay for their own health checks. Surely no-one would put a price on their own lives. To be given a clean bill of health, or to have a potential defect discovered, is well worth the cost of a screening session. People with any family history of cardiac problems should certainly avail of health check-ups before taking part in active sport.
Of course, even comprehensive screening programmes cannot guarantee that further tragedies will not occur in the future. But they will undoubtedly save some lives and all sporting organisations must encourage players to seek medical advice on the state of their health before engaging in games.