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Matthew Miulli, age 17 of Florida


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  • Matthew Miulli, age 17 of Florida

    Athlete's frail heart likely led to death
    The 17-year-old Alonso High School student had been treated twice for an existing condition, a doctor says.
    Published January 21, 2005


    TAMPA - Complications from congenital heart disease likely led to the death of an Alonso High School athlete who collapsed during a running exercise at baseball practice Wednesday, according to a preliminary autopsy.

    Matthew Miulli, a 17-year-old junior, had an existing heart condition for which he had twice been treated, said Dr. Les Chrostowski, associate medical examiner for Hillsborough County.

    "He had congenital heart condition and congenital heart disease," Chrostowski said Thursday.

    "It was ongoing, and he underwent some procedures correcting the problem," he said. "But he was still sick. If you ask me if these exercises that he did were too strenuous for him, I just cannot answer this."

    As Miulli's classmates returned to school Thursday, they were met by a team of grief counselors and other health care professionals. Some, who like Miulli were preparing for baseball tryouts Monday, gathered with their coach and a counselor to mourn Miulli, the third Alonso teenager to die suddenly in the past three months.

    At the Miulli family home in the Westchase area, flowers lined the front doorway. Trays of cookies, meat and cheese were left on the stoop.Sympathy cards were tucked in the door.

    * * *

    Little is known about exactly what triggered a flare-up in Miulli's longstanding heart condition.

    Chrostowski, who performed Miulli's autopsy, did not issue an official cause of death Thursday. He plans to perform additional tests, including a toxicology exam, before making his final report. But the doctor said his preliminary examination revealed, "cardiac arrhythmia resulting from the concentric hypertrophy of the left ventricle."

    Essentially, Chrostowski said, Miulli's heart muscle was too thick.

    Chrostowski would not detail Miulli's previous treatments, citing federal laws that protect patients' medical histories.

    Dr. Joel A. Strom, director of the division of cardiovascular disease at the University of South Florida, said he could not comment on Miulli's case because he was not privy to his medical records or autopsy records.

    But he said sudden death related to heart disease is common in young athletes.

    "There are a number of causes of sudden death in young athletes," Strom said. "There could be an abnormally narrowing of the aortic valve. There could be narrowing below the aortic valve. There could be congenitally increased thickness of the heart muscle. There could be congenital abnormalities of the coronary arteries."

    "Sometimes, young athletes, especially if they get hit in the chest with a baseball, even with normal hearts, can provoke fatal arrhythmia," he said. "These are horrible tragedies when they occur."

    Shortly after school ended Wednesday, those aspiring to be members of the Alonso High School baseball squad began jogging around the school's track. The 1.5-mile run was part of a preseason conditioning program before tryouts Monday.

    Miulli, a transfer student from Tampa Catholic High School, walked.

    He told another student he had chest pains. Soon after, Miulli collapsed.

    The team's coach, Landy Faedo, and emergency rescue personnel could not revive him using CPR. He was taken to Town 'N Country Hospital and pronounced dead about 5 p.m., according Hillsborough County sheriff's records.

    Mark Hart, spokesman for Hillsborough schools, said school officials had a copy of Miulli's medical history before the incident.

    "There's nothing in his medical history that would have precluded him from participating in the preconditioning program or from playing baseball," said Hart, declining to elaborate on the detail's of Miulli's condition.

    Hart would not say if the baseball team's coaches had seen Miulli's medical records before he began working out at the school.

    The school had a defibrillator on site, but the school's staff did not use it because Miulli initially appeared to be having a seizure, Hart said. Once it was clear that this was not the case, the paramedics had arrived, Hart said.

    All students who play or practice sports must have had a physical exam by a doctor and be deemed fit to participate before being allowed to take part, according to the bylaws of the Florida High School Athletic Association. The results of those tests must be kept on file in the principal's office. It was not possible to ascertain Thursday night if these steps had been taken at Alonso.

    * * *

    During first period Thursday morning, baseball players gathered to talk about what they'd witnessed and to share fond memories of the classmate who dreamed of becoming the team's catcher.

    "It helped in a way," senior outfielder Neill Boyd said. "We all felt the same way, and it was good to get it out."

    Throughout the school, students mourned Miulli. Teachers canceled a pep rally. The color guard lowered the American flag to half-staff, only to raise it again once they learned that only the governor could order such an act. Some students left early, rubbing red eyes as they met their parents in the parking lot.

    It was, grief counselors said, a tremendous burden for the students to bear, particularly after the December deaths of two Alonso High School students, Tony and Danny Duong, whose car crashed into a tree.

    In all, about 125 students sought counseling in the school's media center. Miulli's sudden death caused many of the students to contemplate their own mortality. Miulli's coach and some of his teammates wrestled with guilt because they could not save him.

    "What really struck me was their feeling of helplessness," said Vito Ricciardi, a school psychologist. "They watched him die and couldn't do anything. I told him if the EMTs couldn't help him, there was nothing they could do either. That gave them permission to let go."

    Miulli's parents, who neighbors said were longtime residents of the community, were not home Thursday afternoon and could not be reached for comment. Members of the Miullis homeowners association took up a collection for them and said residents were shocked that a tragedy had claimed one of their own.

    "When we saw it on television last night, it wasn't a school that was in the area, so it didn't register that it was him," said Maureen Wolfson, a retired restaurateur who lived near the Miulli family.

    "It's terrible because it's their only child. They've got to be devastated."

    [Last modified January 21, 2005, 00:29:18]