From the heart
By Kim (Lopas) Sullivan ’95
Through a foundation born of her family’s tragic loss, one alum strives to spare other parents the worst grief imaginable.
|Mary Beth (Gilling) Schewitz ’74 is saving young lives with a program that facilitates free EKG screening in high schools and colleges.
Photo courtesy of Catherine Ledner
Mary Beth (Gilling) Schewitz ’74 knew nothing about sudden cardiac death in young people until the terrible September morning in 2005 when her 20-year-old son Max died of an unknown heart irregularity.
“There were no warning signs,” Schewitz says. Max had always been vibrant, adventurous and healthy.
Today Schewitz, a Lake Bluff, Ill., resident, has not only become something of an expert on the underlying heart conditions that kill an estimated 4,000 people under age 35 each year; she’s also doing everything she can to prevent such tragedies.
Through Screens for Teens, part of the nonprofit Max Schewitz Foundation she founded in 2006, a team of medical personnel and volunteers has administered more than 28,000 free electrocardiogram (EKG) screenings to high school and college students throughout the Chicago suburbs. The foundation also spreads awareness of both the risk of sudden cardiac death in young people and the preventive value of EKG screenings.
“While an immediate response to a witnessed adult cardiac arrest improves the chances of survival, the vast majority will die,” Schewitz says. “The need to detect at-risk youth before they are stricken is paramount.”
Although most students show no signs of heart problems, Schewitz’s team has detected students with previously unknown, serious cardiac conditions at every test school.
Logan Nelson, a 19-year-old college freshman, was one of them. After he had an EKG at Vernon Hills High School his junior year, he received a letter at home urging him to see a cardiologist for a follow-up exam. That test revealed an atrial septal deformity – a hole between the left and right side of the heart. He had open-heart surgery to correct it.
“I had no clue,” says Nelson, who played several sports in high school. He had experienced shortness of breath after exercise but thought everyone felt that way. “Now, I feel I can do cardiovascular activities for a lot longer and feel better.”
Doctors told Nelson if he hadn’t had the surgery he would have fatigued very easily as he got older and could have died if he went scuba or deep-sea diving.
“The most surprising aspect is how long it is taking the medical community to embrace widespread EKG screenings,” Schewitz says. “This in an inexpensive, noninvasive test to administer.”
Because EKGs are not performed on seemingly healthy young adults, Schewitz’s husband, David, a physician with a busy practice, suggested that they start the foundation. “I knew that meant me,” she says with a laugh. At the time, however, she was working full time as a geriatric social worker, caring for her second son and daughter, and knew little about running a nonprofit organization. None of that stopped her.
“I thought if I had the ability to do something to prevent other parents from experiencing the same loss we did, I should do it,” she says.
Schewitz quickly learned about fundraising, purchasing equipment and overseeing a cadre of volunteers. She says the liberal arts education she received at St. Norbert, where she majored in sociology and psychology, helped her consider different paths and pursue new opportunities. She has since resigned from her job to focus all her attention on the foundation.
“I see the value in giving back,” she says. “You may not realize the rewards that come from the accomplishments of providing service until later.”
Many national media outlets have recognized Schewitz’s efforts. Real Simple named her one of its Everyday Heroes; Traditional Home Magazine honored her with a Classic Woman Award; and People Magazine and Major League Baseball named her one of three finalists in their All Stars Among Us contest, in which she represented the Chicago Cubs.
July 8, 2012