Whiteland nurse, whose son died of cardiac arrest, volunteers to ID heart problems in kids

The heartbeat didn’t sound right.

Carol Latham could not tell exactly what the problem was as she prepared her 2-year-old patient for surgery at Community Hospital South. But as she listened to the little boy’s heart, an irregular rhythm set off alarms in her head. She told the doctor, and surgery was postponed until the boy could see a cardiologist.

Latham made what might have been a life-saving catch.

“One of the downsides of being a nurse is, we’ll never know what happens to him. He’s somewhere else, and I probably won’t see him again,” she said. “But it was kind of a fateful thing, where everyone said, you’re the one, of all the people in this building, who found this problem.”

Considering the events that led Latham to be a nurse, it was fitting for her to have discovered the heart condition. She has lived through the nightmare scenario of losing a child without warning. Unbeknownst to anybody, her son Ryan had been living with a hidden killer — hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a hardening of the blood muscle that makes it more difficult to pump blood. He suffered sudden cardiac arrest in 2019, and died in his sleep.

Through the tragedy, Latham has worked to prevent other parents from suffering the pain that she did. She went back to school, earned her nursing degree and now works in the pre-operation department at Community Hospital South.

“I don’t want anyone to have to go through what we did,” she said. “The reality is, we’ll never be able to stop it, but if we can keep one person from feeling the way we feel every day, it’s worth it.”

She also has used her experience to sound warnings about the very real dangers of sudden cardiac arrest. She volunteers her time with Play Heart Smart, a nonprofit offering low-cost heart screenings.

“We inevitably have parents who believe their child is fine, they don’t have any symptoms, there is no family history, who do they have to be checked out?” said Ashley Beadles, founder of Play Heart Smart. “To have a mom who has experienced that same life, of thinking her son was very healthy and who died from sudden cardiac arrest, to hear her talk about it, it just really motivates other parents to take it seriously and be proactive in getting their kid screened.”

Ryan Latham, a sophomore at Whiteland Community High School, died from sudden cardiac disease in his sleep in 2019. His mother, Carol Latham, has since become a registered nurse, and volunteers with Play Heart Smart. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Why wouldn’t he wake up?

Latham could not understand as she stood over Ryan on Aug. 24, 2019, and tried to wake him for a football game. The 15-year-old was a healthy, happy teenager, a sophomore three-sport athlete at Whiteland Community High School who had never had any kind of health problem.

Ryan had an insatiable curiosity. He was taking a course on aviation mechanics at Central Nine Career Center as a student, even though he was planning to become a chiropractor.

“He wanted to know why planes flew,” Latham said. “He was just very inclusive, very bright, very kind. He was a pretty cool cat.”

On the night of Aug. 23, 2019, he came home from Whiteland’s season-opening varsity football game. He had been in good spirits.

He was fine when he laid down to sleep the night before. Now, he wouldn’t wake up. Latham and her husband tried to administer CPR and revive him, but it was too late.

“When I went to wake him up, he was gone,” she said.

In the wake of the tragedy, Latham found Beadles, an interaction that led Play Heart Smart to take off.

The Madison County-based nonprofit provides limited cardiac screenings to rule out sudden cardiac disease by using blood pressure readings, ultrasounds, and EKGs. Beadles works as an echo technologist for Community Hospital Anderson, and was inspired to start the organization after the death of an Indianapolis basketball player in 1999.

Play Heart Smart has mobile screening events all over the state for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and also has established a permanent clinic in the Lawrence area.

“Once you meet a family who has lost their kid to something that could have been detected with this non-invasive test, it sticks with you,” Beadles said. “Knowing you can make a difference by going out here and being proactive and offering these screenings to kids at an affordable cost, it just lights a fire under you to give these kids a chance to know they’re playing their sports from a health standpoint.”

She works with Dr. Preetham Jetty, a cardiologist with Community Hospital Anderson, who examines every screening to determine if there are underlying cardiac conditions in people ages 10 to 25. A key focus is keeping the tests affordable, Jetty said.

“A full ultrasound test is expensive. You almost can’t blame parents for skipping those things with the cost issues,” he said. “We want to make sure cost is not a barrier.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1,500 people under 25 years of age die each year of sudden cardiac disease. There are effective treatments and managements, if hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is caught in time, Jetty said.

What makes it so frightening is that it seemingly comes out of nowhere, manifesting in young people who play competitive sports.

“We have found an occasional child that has this, and it’s always crushing for the family, that their child may have this condition,” he said.

Following Ryan’s death, Beadles reached out to Latham and connected her with Whiteland Community High School, where screenings are held for athletes every other year.

“Because he passed away so quickly, Ryan’s story was pretty big in our little town. There were stories in the newspaper, and all the news stations were here,” she said. “Ashley had sent a message, and within six months, we had our first screening at Whiteland.”

The following year, Latham decided to follow a calling she had felt most of her life. She had founded a successful cleaning company, but in 2020, she opted for something different.

“After Ryan passed away, my mom passed away 45 days later. It was a mess. I just told my husband that I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life. It was not what brought me joy, it was not what made my heart smile,” she said. “So I decided to go back to school.”

Starting with virtual courses, she worked toward her nursing degree. She conducted clinicals in a mask, facial shield and scrubs due to the ongoing pandemic.

But she has loved the experience of being a nurse. Latham has been a registered nurse for nearly two years now.

Latham has helped spearhead regular screenings in Whiteland, and as Play Heart Smart’s mission has become more public, events have been scheduled throughout Johnson County and beyond.

She also continues to volunteer her time with Play Heart Smart helping with the screenings — an important way to honor Ryan’s legacy and ensure no other parents go through what she did.

“There’s really no symptoms. Lots of people think that because your kid is an athlete, they’re healthy. It doesn’t matter what your child looks like, it doesn’t matter if you have a family history, none of that matters,” she said.


Play Heart Smart

What: A nonprofit providing limited cardiac screenings to rule out sudden cardiac disease by using blood pressure readings, ultrasounds, and EKGs

Where: Mobile screenings are held throughout the area, and a permanent open clinic is available at 9165 Otis Ave Ste 220, Indianapolis.

How to sign up for a screening: Go to playheartsmart.org to make an appointment.