Saving lives a Heartfelt mission for Laguna Beach woman
Steven “Scotty” Lang was just 16 years old when he collapsed and died at a football practice in the fall of 1999.
Lang was a junior at Fountain Valley High, and a lineman on the football team. At the time, the reason for his death was considered unknown.
But the Morrell family, which has lost several members due to sudden cardiac arrest, had a good idea what had happened to Scotty. Although they were not related to him, Chuck Morrell, a former football player-turned-actor who lived across the street from the high school at the time of the teen’s death, phoned his daughter Holly.
Lang died on Nov. 15, 1999 — Holly Morrell’s birthday. But that wasn’t the only reason she felt called to action.
“We knew why they were dying, and the public didn’t understand because they were still stuck on heart attack [versus cardiac arrest],” said Holly, now 56. “About a month later, we screened 500 kids at Fountain Valley High School.”
Chuck Morrell has since passed away, but Holly, a Laguna Beach resident turned it into her life’s mission to screen as many people as possible for the risks of cardiac arrest through her nonprofit Heartfelt Cardiac Projects.
She has a special interest in young student-athletes, who remain at risk despite generally being in good shape. That’s because cardiac arrest is an electrical issue in the heart and often asymptomatic, unlike a heart attack.
The numbers can be grim. Morrell said that cardiac arrest, when it occurs outside of a hospital, has a less than 10% survival rate. It’s the No. 1 cause of death on school campuses, and it’s the No. 1 cause of death in young athletes.
“Once the heart goes into that deadly rhythm, if you will, you typically have to have access to defibrillation in order to save their lives,” she said. “If people did understand the difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack, they would realize why the athlete on the playing field — an otherwise seemingly healthy, active individual — can be at risk. [Lack of awareness] is one reason why it will remain the No. 1 killer in the United States, as well as the fact that these pre-sports participation physical exams are completely inadequate in terms of cardiac evaluation.”
It remains personal for Morrell. She was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) in 2002 and has undergone seven related surgeries since then. She said her team has screened more 55,000 people in the last two-plus decades, resulting in more than 1,000 lives being saved.
Heartfelt typically screens in school gymnasiums around Orange County or community venues, and the next screening is coming up April 1 at Hills Church OC in Laguna Hills. Online preregistration is recommended at heartfeltscreening.org.
These community screenings cost a nominal fee of $85 for an echocardiogram and electrocardiogram (EKG), though there are also other options. Children and adults can be screened in an office, through a partnership with Laguna Beach-based cardiologist Dr. Dawn Atwal. Corporate screenings are also available, and last month “Heartfelt at Home” was launched as well, to provide home visits.
Atwal has been part of the Heartfelt team for nearly a decade, providing readings of the screening results. She said sudden cardiac arrest awareness has come a long way since Hank Gathers collapsed and died during a Loyola Marymount men’s basketball game in 1990. His autopsy confirmed that he had HCM.
“That was more than 30 years ago, but my whole purpose now is to have these defibrillators in all arenas,” Atwal said. “My kids play soccer on fields that are not even at schools, but if you have one at soccer fields, basketball fields ... at any arena they should be available. And I think every home should have one. You never know what can happen.”
The April 1 Heartfelt screening will be in partnership with the Hall family, who lost their son Logan to a sudden cardiac arrest death in 2018. Logan was a senior baseball pitcher in Capistrano Valley Christian High.
“I am in awe of parents that, in the midst of their grief and heartache, they want to prevent another family from experiencing what they have gone through in losing a child,” Morrell said. “They usually come to learn that it’s a preventable tragedy.”
With Heartfelt’s help, that is true. Ali Aga, a dedicated tournament tennis player at the time, was going into her freshman year at Dana Hills High in June 2018 when she had a screening through Heartfelt.
Two weeks later, Ali’s mom Tina received a phone call from Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Ali had a condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, where an extra signaling pathway between the heart’s upper and lower chambers causes a fast heartbeat.
Aga’s first surgery was unsuccessful but she had a corrective one about six months later. She started a club at Dana Hills called the Heroic Hearts Club, which deploys volunteers at Heartfelt screenings.
“After I was diagnosed I never played tennis competitively again,” said Aga, now a freshman at Southern Methodist University. “That was very hard at first … but I realized I was super-creative and loved art. My new path in life is very exciting. Something good came out of this.
“We’re not survivors, we’re thrivers. I think that’s something that’s really important about Holly’s organization. Every life she’s saved, not only have we survived conditions, but a lot of us feel the need to give back. So not only are we surviving, we’re thriving.”
In 2019, Morrell teamed with Scotty Lang’s family for another screening day at Fountain Valley High, 20 years after his death. That was an emotional day, she said, before COVID-19 presented her organization with challenges. But she keeps going.
Last weekend, she took a trip to Kansas to watch the Kansas State men’s basketball team play. Senior forward Keyontae Johnson is excelling for the Wildcats, ranked No. 18 in the country.
Johnson collapsed on the sidelines in December 2020, while playing with Florida, but he has returned better than ever. Earlier this month he signed a NIL deal with Heartfelt, which allows the nonprofit to use his name, image and likeness.
Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin, who has since recovered after collapsing mid-game on Jan. 2, also has brought awareness to the dangers of sudden cardiac arrest.
As for Morrell, she has two nephews and a niece who volunteer with her. She could see them taking over Heartfelt someday.
“I want to keep going as long as I can,” she said. “You can live a long, happy, healthy life with heart disease. You just have to know that you have it. Early detection is absolutely life-saving.”
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