Burrell football player died from a heart tumor, autopsy shows

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, 3:55 p.m.

Noah Cornuet's sudden death Wednesday didn't just shock his family, friends and community.

Medical experts were stunned at the exceptionally rare cause of the Lower Burrell teenager and athlete's death.

Noah, 16, died from an atrial myxoma — described as a non-cancerous tumor inside the heart, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office. The medical examiner ruled the death as from natural causes.

“That is so rare. That's really freaky,” said Dr. Srinivas Murali, medical director of the cardiovascular institute at Allegheny Health Network. “That's very unfortunate. It's such a rare thing. They are really very, very rare.”

Not only are such tumors rare, they are most often found in women and in the left side of the heart, said Murali.

A tumor such as the one Noah had can kill by either blocking blood flow or breaking up and causing a pulmonary embolism, in which a main artery of the lungs is blocked, according to Murali.

Noah's family was told that the tumor their son had was about 3 inches by 1.5 inches. It was located in the right side of his heart.

According to his family, Noah never exhibited any symptoms.

Noah's father, Raymond Cornuet, said Allegheny County Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams told him the chances of this happening to his son were infinitesimal — just 0.00005 percent.

“Can you believe it? And they can't pick it up on tests unless he had an EKG on him during the attack,” Cornuet said.

“Dr. Williams said, of the 5,000 autopsies he has done, he has never seen it and it can't readily be picked up by medical tests.”

Noah, who was entering his sophomore year at Burrell High School, collapsed just after 6 p.m. Wednesday on a practice field behind the school on the first day of the football team's heat acclimation practices. He was pronounced dead about an hour later at Allegheny Valley Hospital.

Murali said, while such tumors can run in families, there's no way for a person to know if he or she is at risk or should be checked.

The tumors can develop at any age. They grow slowly over time, with the tumor frequently at the end of a stalk that bounces around inside the heart.

Although there can be symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain and fainting, such tumors often go undiagnosed until death occurs. A person would not feel the tumor bouncing, but a doctor could hear it, Murali said.

“Even if it was causing any symptom, it was insignificant for him. Maybe it got missed,” Murali said. “This is not like other kinds of heart disease that cause a physical limitation.”

Burrell quarterback Max Garda said players had just finished stretching and got up to begin the practice's first drill when Noah collapsed.

“I turned around and saw him on the ground,” Garda said. “I don't know if anybody really knew what happened at first. There were a few occasions last year where he was ridiculously tired and said he needed a break, so we thought maybe he was tired.”

When atrial myxomas are found, it's usually incidentally during a test for something else or in attempting to find the cause of some other cardiac symptom, Murali said. They can be removed surgically.

Obituary appears on A4.

Staff writers Chuck Biedka and Bill Beckner contributed to this report. Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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