NEW YORK – Awareness of health issues in youth and high school sports is quite high, and there is better access to life-saving materials, knowledge and planning than there has been, but young athletes continue to die in ways that would be preventable if treated more responsibly.
That message from a panel of medical experts on Thursday applies to a full range of potentially catastrophic health incidents in teens, including sudden cardiac arrest, heat stroke, and concussive events, inclusive of any incident that causes brain or neck injuries.
The one constant is proper medical oversight must be available and in far too many cases is not. That is a problem the panel hopes to address as part of two days of meetings here with representatives from the athletic bodies of all 50 states.
“You should cringe when you read that a kid died of heat stroke this summer, because it was a tub ice and an athletic trainer who kept that kid from having dinner with his family that night,” Douglas Casa, the COO of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut told a media briefing at the NFL offices. “Heat stroke is 100% survivable if treated properly, if you put an athlete in a cold water immersion tub on site immediately afterward. You have to cool first, transport second. … But diagnosis has to be done on site by an athletic trainer.”
According to the experts— including Casa; Jonathan Drezner, Seattle Seahawks team physician and director of the University of Washington Medicine Center for Sports Cardiology; Kevin Guskiewicz, University of North Carolina Matthew Gfeller Foundation Director; Jason Cates, head athletic trainer of Arkansas’ Cabot Public Schools, and Roman Oben a former NFL player who now serves as the league’s head of high school and youth football — one of the major problems plaguing the youth safety landscape is a lack of proper planning.
The statistics are not pretty. According to the Stringer Institute, only 22% of states meet the recommendation that every school or organization that sponsors athletics develop a plan for managing serious and or potentially life-threatening injuries. A mere 12% of states meet the recommendation that every school have a written plan that is distributed to all staff members, while only 10% fulfill the recommendation that the plan is specific to each venue and includes maps or specific directions to that venue.
When combined with an ongoing dearth of skilled medical professionals overseeing sports activities on campuses, it’s clear that even having all the right tools on campus can be insufficient in preventing death or serious injury due to sudden events.
“When you recognize sudden cardiac arrest, apply CPR and use an Automatic External Defibrillator that is on campus, the survival rate is above 80 percent,” Drezner said. “The survival rate of sudden cardiac arrest in the general public is 8 percent. When there is public access to defibrillators, survival rate is around 50 percent. Every school must have an emergency action plan that will accompany having all of the tools.
“An emergency action plan should be written and practiced at least annually, just as we practice fire drills. Sudden cardiac arrest is largely preventable if we are prepared.”
In fact, Cates could speak to those precise circumstances. In January 2008, Parkview High School basketball player Anthony Hobbs collapsed during a game at his school and died shortly thereafter. He had been transported to a local hospital but there was no AED at Parkview at the time. Two years later one of Hobbs’ teammates, Chris Winston, collapsed on the very same court that had claimed Hobbs’ life. This time the school was prepared. An AED installed just weeks before the incident was used before Winston was transported to a hospital.
The panel focused on proper training and technique as opposed to the nature of sports themselves when discussing injuries. When asked about the recent retirement of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, all responded with an acknowledged respect for his decision but a wariness to use one man’s choice as a bellwether of reason, instead noting that, “every concussion is unique, like snowflake.” Borland cited concern over the long-term effect of concussions as the main reason he left after one season.
All five panelists either do, or said they would, allow their sons to play football.
The panel agree there is room for improvement, nationwide. Casa cited Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina and New Jersey as states with policies that have proved quite effective and could serve as models for other states. Texas was lauded for passing the first bill that mandated AEDs be installed in all schools, while Washington passed a similar measure requiring a comprehensive approach to concussions and brain trauma.