The tale of this midfielder’s untimely death lies in a silent and deadly foe known as the hypertrophic cardiomyopathy health condition.
This often-misunderstood heart condition played a tragic role in the loss of the talented Nigerian footballer, shining a light on the importance of understanding and addressing cardiovascular health.
In an interview with a seasoned medical practitioner, Kayode Oguntimehin, he stated that Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is a cardiac condition characterised by abnormal thickening of the heart muscle.
“Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy is a condition in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick. It is usually caused by an inherited genetic variant from one’s parent,” he revealed.
This thickening can impede the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively and lead to various complications. In Samuel Okwaraji’s case, this condition proved fatal.
“It can also be caused by High blood pressure. Sometimes the cause is unknown. Because it causes the thickening of the heart muscles, it reduces the ability of the heart to pump blood efficiently.
“Most people who have it do not know as it might cause no symptoms, but it might also cause shortness of breath, exercise intolerance, arrhythmia, cardiac arrest,
“There is no prevention, but it can be managed by drugs and one needs to get it diagnosed first. It is usually diagnosed by echocardiogram, which looks at the heart and its chambers,” he told Soccernet.ng.
During a critical moment, just thirteen minutes away from the end of a 1990 World Cup qualifier match against Angola in Lagos, Okwaraji collapsed on the field.
The underlying cause was later revealed to be an enlarged heart and high blood pressure due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
HCM frequently hides beneath the surface, with many people being unaware of it until a fatal occurrence takes place. The best way to discover this problem is by routine check-ups, cardiac exams, and knowledge of one’s family medical history.
A Déjà vu incident also occurred to Cameroonian defender Marc-Vivien Foé, who passed away 14 years after the Okwaraji Incident when he fell in the middle of the pitch during Cameroon’s 2003 FIFA World Cup Semifinal match against Colombia.
Even the fittest and most active football players can be vulnerable to silent heart issues, and it would be recalled that Manchester United’s Christian Eriksen almost died when he had a cardiac arrest during Denmark’s Euro 2020 opening game against Finland but was saved after he was given a CPR on the pitch.
Perhaps, an adequate machine to save lives on the pitch would have stopped the 25-year-old Nigerian from losing his life as well.
“Okwaraji’s case is difficult to compare with Eriksen’s simply because medical care, especially on field intervention, has improved tremendously in the intervening period.” he continued.
“Things like portable automatic defibrillators were not present then. The first 7–10 mins of cardiac events like this are the most important.
“Could his death have been prevented? Maybe. But it is easier to look back in retrospect and conclude that if this or that had been done, he could have been saved.
“The question to ask is, back then, were the capabilities to do that available? People forget that Marc Vivian Foe died in France of the same condition in 2003 and could not be saved. This was years after Okwaraji’s.
“I am not sure if Eriksen’s condition is related to HCM. Ventricular arrhythmia is one of the symptoms of HCM, but not the only cause of cardiac events in HCM.
“Yes, when the event occurs, the heart goes into ventricular arrhythmia. So inserting a pacemaker can help avert the arrhythmia. But I think Eriksen was more of a rhythm problem ab initio, rather than HCM” the Doctor added.
While it is true that regular exercise prevents HCM and that football is an exercise activity, the doctor offers deeper insight into how the illness may be avoided.
“Even though exercises help in managing HCM, I don’t think high-capacity exercises like professional football is compatible with an ongoing HCM.
“They should rather find a different means of earning a living. They run the risk of sudden cardiac death as the first symptom of their condition,” he said.
The passing of Okwaraji serves as a sombre reminder that cardiovascular health goes beyond the football pitch, extending to every facet of life.