Tuesday, January 27, 2009
A generation ago, the sports section was just about sports. Over time it morphed into business, politics and medicine as fans learned about salary caps and signing bonuses, tax free bond issues for stadium construction and injuries, rehab progress and performance enhancing drugs. For medicine and health, sport has become an opportunity to learn and this weekend proved to be prime fodder.
It’s hard to know where to start but perhaps it’s with a heat exhaustion story in the middle of the cold winter. The family of Korey Stringer, a Minnesota Viking lineman who dies of heat stroke, settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL but continues another lawsuit against Riddell, Inc., a company that makes helmets and shoulder pads. The family says that that Riddell failed to warn players and coaches that wearing its equipment in hot temperatures can be dangerous. While the death of a player is tragic, one would think that an elite athlete who had worn a helmet for most of his life would know that it gets hot. Regardless of the profession, working in a hot environment is dangerous and preventing heat related illness is better than trying to cool the body. Avoiding exertion in the heat of the day and drinking lots of fluid are essential to preventing heat cramps and heat exhaustion. And as the families of Mr. Stringer and Max Gilpin, a Kentucky high school football player, have found out, heat stroke is deadly.
Even with better helmets, heads are not immune to injury. Researchers are finding that repeated head injuries may lead to structural changes in the brain similar to Alzheimer Disease. The latest research installment involves the brain autopsy of a former NFL player, Tom McHale, who died last year at age 45. A microscopic look at brain cells found changes similar to cells of patients with dementia. Concussion and minor head injuries remain a challenge to the medical community. Trying to decide if and when a player can return safely to the field of play or whether a worker can go back to a construction site is not an exact science. No right answer exists as to when the time is right or who needs a CT scan or even if a concussion occurred. Studies of college football players have indicated that of those with a head injury, up to 80% didn’t realize it. Often teammates and coaches make the diagnosis that something isn’t right. Return to normal brain function is hard to measure, especially when post traumatic symptoms include insomnia, difficulty concentration and a shortening of attention span.
It is never a positive when the word cancer arises in a discussion with a doctor. For Miles Brand, the NCAA president, the bad news was pancreatic cancer and he announced that the chemotherapy was already begun. The pancreas sits behind the stomach and produces insulin to regulate blood sugar levels in the body and is also produces enzymes that help digest food. Cancer of the pancreas usually has a bad prognosis because the tumor has grown and spread before causing many symptoms. By the time that symptoms of pain, nausea and weight loss have occurred, the cancer has begun to spread or metastasize. Treatment options include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy but even with aggressive care, survival rates are poor; perhaps 20% at one year and 4 % at five years. Not much more to say.
But the cancer fight is worth fighting. After 22 years of fighting breast cancer with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, North Carolina State coach Kay Yow passed away. According to espn.com, fellow coach Gene Auriemma was quoted as saying: “She was willing to fight the fight. She was positive all the time. She never felt sorry for herself. She used cancer as a teaching tool and a motivator for those she came into contact with. She was given that platform, that mission, for all those years. And I guess it was time to finally go because she’d done all there was to do.” Once again, not much more to say.