Saving Young Lives

mary-beth-schewitz
Photo by Catherine Ledner
Mary Beth Schewitz
Age: 56
Hometown: Lake Bluff, Illinois
Married with two children

On the morning of September 29, 2005, Mary Beth intercepted her 20-year-old son, Max, on his way to work as an instructor at the nearby Wildlife Discovery Center. She needed help moving furniture into the garage for an upcoming yard sale. When she thanked him, the mother of three got more than the usual “See you later.” “I love you, Mom,” Max said tenderly and hugged her good-bye.

An hour later, Mary Beth’s husband, David, called. Max had fainted at work and been taken to the hospital. Initially Mary Beth wasn’t concerned. An intrepid adventurer and skydiver, Max had always been in excellent health. But when Mary Beth got to the emergency room 10 minutes later, Max no longer had a heartbeat. “The doctors called the time of death and left us with him,” she says. “I cried like a wounded animal, trying to reconcile the fact that I would have to leave my son behind in the same hospital where he was born.”

Max had died of sudden cardiac death (SCD), due to an irregular heartbeat. In the following days, Mary Beth was shocked to learn that the condition has no warning signs. Each year, 4,000 people under the age of 35 die of SCD.

In 2006 Mary Beth channeled her horror and grief into starting the Max Schewitz Foundation, an organization dedicated to environmental conservation―a lifelong passion of Max’s―and to supporting prevention of and research into SCD in youths. The group’s core program is Screens for Teens, which provides free EKG testing to high school students. (EKG testing doesn’t provide a conclusive diagnosis for cardiac disease, but it may indicate an underlying condition that can be clarified by further tests.)

Since Screens for Teens began, more than 10,000 students in the Chicago area have received a free EKG. To date, 142 teenagers have learned that they are at risk for SCD, including 16-year-old Konrad Mueller, who is now being treated for a rare congenital heart disorder. “We feel so lucky that Konrad had the test,” says his mother, Monica, who got a defibrillator for their house. “We wouldn’t have known there was a problem until it was too late.”

In 2007 Mary Beth, who has two other children, Sarah, 27, and Adam, 23, quit her job as a geriatric social worker to focus on the foundation. She spends 40 hours a week fundraising, planning events, securing volunteers, requesting donations of supplies, and coordinating each day of testing, which entails hauling EKG machines around in her station wagon. She also recruited three cardiologists to supervise the testing and interpret each EKG result.

The work is exhausting and emotional, but Mary Beth can't imagine a more meaningful use of her time. She says, "I will work as many hours as it takes to make Max proud and spare another family from our grief."