Detective of the heart


Editor’s note: This corrects the cost of the cardiact testing and what the testing idenfies.

Nearly two years ago, a seemingly healthy 21-year-old man signed up for cardiac screening at the Heartfelt Cardiac clinic in Laguna, as part of a requirement on his physical examination to become an overseas missionary. To his surprise, the tests revealed a large hole in his heart, a condition that would call for immediate medical attention and open-heart surgery.

“He was diagnosed with Atrial Septal Defect, a potentially life threatening disease,” said Holly Morrell, founder of the Heartfelt Cardiac Projects, a nonprofit that aims to save lives from sudden cardiac death through early detection, education and increased public awareness. “Because of the early detection, he is able to do his missionary work abroad and live a happy, healthy life.”

The No. 1 killer in the United States and among women, sudden cardiac arrest — an electrical malfunction in the heart that causes it to suddenly stop beating — claims about 300,000 lives each year, according to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Assn. About 95% of victims who suffer from cardiac arrest don’t survive.

“We detected life-threatening situations in three people from right here in Laguna Beach just this past summer,” Morrell said.

“Most of these deaths occur with no warning. That’s why early detection is so important. It gives you either peace of mind, or prompts you to seek proper medical attention.”

With an extreme family history of genetic heart disease — she has lost six family members to heart failure, and is one of three living members of her family who live with a heart condition — Morrell said she wanted to devote her life to helping others prevent what she believe is a preventable tragedy.

Thanks to early detection, she became aware of her hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and was given an implantable defibrillator, ready to administer a life-saving shock if necessary.

An avid tennis player and hiker, Morrell said she wants others to know heart disease doesn’t have to be a death sentence.

“You can still live a happy and healthy life,” she said. “There are plenty of interventional methods available. You just need to know that you have it.”

Established 11 years ago, Morrell’s nonprofit offers affordable screening to the public nationwide and through the Sports Performance Institute in Laguna Canyon. The screening, which normally costs $1,500, is offered for an $85 tax-deductible donation.

To date, her organization has screened 17,000 people across the country, including 10,000 high school athletes free of charge. Testing on athletes is something Morrell said she feels strongly about, and she doesn’t believe the current physical exams for athletes are adequate.

Heartfelt can identify heart disease and the general risk of cardiac arrest, in people ages 5 and older, Morrell said.

The electrocardiogram (EKG) measures electrical activity in the heart, such as arrhythmia and an echocardiogram, a core complex evaluation, locates structural issues in the heart via an ultrasound.

“These are the two best kinds of screening available,” Morrell said.

Recently nominated for the “Eagle Rare Life Award” by Eagle Rare Bourbon, Morrell said the award acknowledges those with inspirational and heroic stories. The winner of the contest will be awarded $10,000 for their cause, and equally as important, will be given the opportunity to raise more awareness, she said.

“Lives are being saved through our program. We need the community’s support to keep saving lives.”

Voting continues through Jan. 8. To vote for Morrell, visit To learn more about the Heartfelt Cardiac Projects or for a list of upcoming screenings, visit

The next clinic in Laguna will take place Feb. 19 at the Sports Performance Institute, 2295 Laguna Canyon Road.