Jamie Dixon puts effort where his heart is

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Pitt coach Jamie Dixon and his family attended another funeral in New York this week. It was the third funeral in as many years for a family member who passed away from a heart ailment.

Jack Jacksen, Dixon's godfather and uncle, died from a heart attack at the age of 73. In April 2006, Dixon's sister, Maggie, died at age 28 from a heart arrhythmia. Two months later, Dixon's cousin, John Jacksen, 43, died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest.

Sudden cardiac death has been a source of frustration for the Dixon family, and now they're trying to do something about it. Jamie Dixon and the University of Pittsburgh are doing their part to help promote heart awareness Saturday with the Maggie Dixon Heart Health Fair as part of the annual basketball Fan Fest at the Petersen Events Center.

Pitt Fan Fest and Maggie Dixon Heart Health Fair
  • When: 1-4 p.m. Saturday.
  • Where: Petersen Events Center.
  • Parking: Free in the OC Lot.

Fans can receive free health screenings, get CPR and AED training, access educational health displays, consult nutritionists and play games in addition to interactive experiences with the men's and women's basketball teams.

"We want to heighten awareness," said Julie Dixon-Silva, Jamie's sister and the co-founder of the Maggie Dixon Foundation with her brother. "There is no age that is not touched by heart disease. We want to do something so other families don't have to go through what we have. We're so passionate about getting the word out there."

The Maggie Dixon Foundation promotes awareness of sudden cardiac death and the need for early diagnoses and preventative treatment. According to estimates, 250,000 Americans will die from sudden cardiac arrest each year, and 7,000 children will be stricken every year with sudden cardiac arrest. Heart health fairs such as the one at the Petersen Events Center can identify as many as 90 percent of individuals at risk for heart arrhythmias and sudden cardiac deaths.

Dixon believes so strongly in preventative measures that each of his players receives EKGs before the start of each season. That is a rarity in college athletics, but Dixon is trying to spread the word to other universities about the importance of administering such tests, even with young and seemingly healthy athletes.

Maggie Dixon was only a few years removed from a college basketball career and had taken measures to remain in good shape.

"The goal is to have something positive come out of this," Jamie Dixon said. "If somebody can save a life by going through CPR training or learns of an abnormality from an EKG then it will be worth it. This can save lives."

The idea for the heart health fair was hatched when Jamie Dixon brought Dr. Dan Edmundowicz, the head of UPMC Cardiovascular Institute's Center for Heart Disease Prevention, to the Maggie Dixon Classic last year at Madison Square Garden. The tournament has a heath fair incorporated into the event, and Edmundowicz was impressed by how many people were taking advantage of the free care.

More than 10,000 people attended the tournament, and Edmundowicz and Dixon believed they could promote heart awareness in Pittsburgh by holding a similar type fair.

"Dr. Edmundowicz thought it was a great event and he just kind of took off with it," Dixon said. "Heart disease is the No. 1 killer among Americans and the No. 1 killer for young people. You don't realize until it happens to someone close to you."

In addition to the heart health fair, there will be six chalk talks with men's and women's coaches and players, tours of the facilities, plus activities such as a race car setup, bungee run, balloon artist, cheer station, face painting and an inflatable hoop shoot.

Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.


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