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Athletes health top of mind for coaches, trainers

March 11, 2011


The tragic death of a high school basketball player in Michigan has sparked a national conversation on the health concerns that come with being a student athlete. 
Wes Leonard, a 16-year-old basketball player of Fenville, Mich., collapsed last week after a game and died shortly after. The cause of death was an enlarged heart, of which Leonard was unaware. 
While an enlarged heart is a rare condition, it can be fatal for an athlete. Enlargement means the heart becomes weak. The stress of intense physical activity can cause cardiac arrest. 
Two other high school athletes have also died suddenly in the last week. Matthew Hammerdorfer, a 17-year-old rugby player from Colorado collapsed during a game over the weekend, and was later pronounced dead from cardiac arrest caused by an enlarged heart according to the New York Daily News. And a soccer player in Florida with a history of medical problems was hospitalized on Monday after collapsing at a practice. She passed away on Wednesday according to The Gainesville Sun.
All student athletes must have an annual physical exam before they can be cleared to compete. Most physicals include an orthopedic exam, as well as a check of the heart and lungs. Many health issues, such as heart murmurs,  can be caught during these exams, and if needed, the student can be referred to a specialist. 
Mary McLendon, director of Sports Medicine at MSU, explained that despite required medical check-ups, certain issues are difficult to detect. 
“That’s the scariest part about this; [Enlarged hearts] are notoriously hard to spot on a standard physical,” McLendon said. 
She pointed out that athletic trainers are a valuable resource to keep student athletes safe and healthy. They work with an athlete during training, practice and competitions and get to know the individual’s physical capabilities. They are trained to deal with injuries and health issues and can often spot a problem before it becomes serious. 
“When you’re dealing with an athlete on a day-to-day basis, you build a relationship,” Ken Lee, an athletic trainer who works students at Starkville High School, said. “You know if they’re truly hurt or not based on your rapport with them.”
Dehydration and exhaustion are more common problems. Intense exercise combined with rising temperatures can lead to a potentially dangerous situation.
“We are always keeping an eye on the kids,” Danny Carlisle, baseball coach at Starkville High School, said. “We’re there to make sure they stay rested and hydrated.”
Incidents like the one in Michigan are rare, and athletic programs try to be as prepared as possible for the worst case scenarios. MSU keeps automated external defibrillators (AED) at all the athletic venues.
“The big thing is that we make sure that if an emergency happens, we have the resources to treat it right away,” McLendon said.

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