Apr 2, 2023 - Partners

Meet the sports cardiologist for Charlotte’s top athletes

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Produced in partnership with Atrium Health.

Dr. Dermot Phelan is a sports cardiologist with Atrium Health at the Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute.

What this means: He helps professional and amateur athletes with heart conditions maximize their performance and safely return to play.

  • Dr. Phelan has worked as a cardiologist for the NFL, MLB, WNBA, and NBA and he’s currently the cardiologist for Charlotte FC and the Panthers.
  • But, he says that his “biggest role is in the local community, working with young athletes.”

The background: Sports cardiology has garnered national attention after a professional football player collapsed on the field from cardiac arrest in January.

Dr. Phelan (top right) at the MLB combine.

What brought you to Charlotte?

I grew up in Ireland and did most of my medical training there before coming to the Cleveland Clinic in 2011.

In Cleveland, I set up their Sports Cardiology Center and was also part of the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) Center.

Why now: When I was invited to come to Charlotte in 2020, I was extraordinarily impressed with the work going on at Sanger and was excited by all that the city had to offer.

Why did you choose to specialize in sports cardiology?

The background: Growing up, I was always very athletic, but, unfortunately, I got a lot of injuries and spent a little too much time in hospitals.

  • I became really impressed with the orthopedic surgeons, so my initial plan was to do orthopedic surgery.

Okay, but: Once I got into my training, I really just fell in love with cardiology. Sports cardiology is a very new field, so I really saw a need there.

Are athletes at a higher risk for heart disease?

No, but if you already have an underlying cardiac condition and you participate in high-intensity sports, there’s an increased risk of dangerous heart rhythms.

The impact: If you compare young athletes to sedentary individuals, their rate of sudden cardiac death is actually higher; not because they have more disease, but because they stress their systems more through exertion.

  • However, as we get older, being an athlete is highly protective and athletes live longer.

The takeaway: It’s important to highlight that incidents like the one in January are rare. As a sports cardiologist, I’m trying to identify heart problems in individuals before a major incident and give them guidance on how they can participate safely.

What conditions do you typically treat?

Some examples: I see athletes with electrical conditions like atrial fibrillation, ventricular problems like coronary disease, or aortic problems.

  • Okay, but: I’m not an expert in all of those conditions, so I work with team members who are.

The takeaway: Sports cardiology really is a team sport because the unifying parameter is that the patient considers themselves an athlete.

What was going through your mind when a professional football player collapsed mid-game in January?

I was actually reading my kids bedtime stories when my phone exploded with texts. Obviously, it was a very traumatic event for him and those in his life, but thankfully, the correct course of action was put in place.

The background: The NFL has very strict emergency action plans that they practice regularly to prepare for something like this.

This is a great lesson about the importance of CPR and AEDs, in which we’ve already seen an uptick in interest.

How is Atrium Health advancing sports cardiology?

Because sports cardiology is a relatively new field, research is so important. I’m one of the principal investigators for the Outcomes Registry for Cardiac Conditions and Athletes (ORCCA), which will be one of the world’s biggest registries of athletes with cardiac conditions.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I spend most of it with my kids, going to various sporting events or to the Whitewater Center. I love Charlotte, it’s just a fantastic city.

Dr. Phelan and his family.

Learn more about Dr. Phelan and his work with Atrium Health’s Sports Cardiology Program.

Produced in partnership with Atrium Health.

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