Athletes Deserve Better Care

Athletes deserve better medical tests, answers

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010 12:01 a.m. MST

This was a footnote to coverage of the NFL playoffs this weekend: Chicago Bears defensive end Gaines Adams died of cardiac arrest. He was 26 years old.

Preliminary reports say Adams died of complications due to an enlarged heart.

Adams, who was the fourth pick in the 2007 draft, could run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 second in high school. He had a 38-inch vertical jump. He was in prime condition, or so it seemed.

Adams joins a small but tragic group of elite athletes who in recent years have died suddenly and largely without warning. Most had undiagnosed cardiac conditions. Many had no symptoms or poorly treated symptoms. Their deaths shocked the sports world. Chansi Stucki, one of Adams’ former college teammates at Clemson University, was so stunned that he thought initial reports of Adams’ death were fabrications.

It’s remarkable that athletes who compete at such a high level can walk around with ticking time bombs in their chests. One of the most reliable screening tests for these conditions — echocardiograms — are highly expensive. Since these conditions are relatively rare, sound financial arguments can be made against running such expensive tests on a widespread basis.

That seems acceptable until someone like Adams dies.

Professional sports make oodles of money. They rely on the talents of people like Adams. Shouldn’t he and his fellows have the benefit of the doubt?

Some nations, such as Italy, have taken the screening of athletes to an unprecedented level. Since the 1970s, all athletes ages 12-35 have been required to undergo physical exams and electrocardiograms, commonly known as EKGs. Research published in 2006 determined that sudden death in Italian athletes has dropped by 90 percent, largely due to the detection of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an abnormal thickening of the heart, as well other cardiac conditions that rendered athletes ineligible for participation.

After the death of Atlanta Hawks center Jason Collier in 2005, all NBA athletes have been required to undergo cardiac ultrasound. Collier, who was 7 feet tall, had an abnormally large heart, even for a man of his size.

Because professional sports is such big business, some athletes take unnecessary risks. After Reggie Lewis of the Boston Celtics had been diagnosed with heart disease by a team of specialists, he received clearance to play from his own cardiologist. He died during a light workout on July 27, 1993. An autopsy showed Lewis’s heart was enlarged and scarred by a viral infection.

His case is extreme. Many times, these elite athletes have no symptoms. Their first symptom may be a sudden collapse or death.

Seemingly, an EKG should be part of the baseline screening for any athlete. People who have irregular results can be referred for additional screenings.

Some will argue that more expensive forms of screening — as baseline measures — shouldn’t be doled out so readily when people with known medical problems lack access to care. It’s a difficult ethical issue.

But it is one thing to burden public health systems with athletic physicals. It is quite another for colleges and professional sports teams to contract privately with cardiologists and others who are willing to perform and read these tests at a negotiated rate.

It’s appalling at a time when the technology is readily available that sudden cardiac deaths among the nation’s most elite athletes persist.

Not all of these conditions are readily screened. Some people develop enlarged hearts due to infection, which may not be present when the screenings are scheduled.

Yet, Italy’s example provides compelling evidence that proper screening of athletes, beginning at age 12, has profound benefits. It means some people do not get to realize their dreams of being champion bicyclists or professional basketball players. But it also means that they have the chance to live long, relatively healthy lives.

Something tells me Gaines Adams’ 5-year-old son would have rather his father retired from the NFL than to not be there on the sidelines when he plays his first Bantam game.

Marjorie Cortez, who believes athletes deserve the benefit of today’s medical technology, is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at marjorie@desnews.com

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