By Karen Billing
Torrey Pines High School athletes took part in Athletes Saving Athletes on March 8, a new program designed to improve the safety of high school sports by educating students on the basics of how they can help save a life in the event of head and neck injuries, sudden cardiac arrest, heat illness, diabetes and asthma.
Athletes Saving Athletes was created by Advocates for Injured Athletes, an organization co-founded by Beth Mallon and her son Tommy after Tommy suffered a life-threatening neck fracture in 2009 while playing lacrosse at Santa Fe Christian.
This was only the second Athletes Saving Athletes presentation; the first was held at Santa Fe Christian and the third will be presented to Point Loma High School athletes on March 22.
The 50 Torrey Pines athletes in the program were nominated by their coaches and represented nearly all the sports on campus. They spent the day learning signs and symptoms of concussions, neck injuries and heat illnesses, and what they should do in each case. One broad solution they were taught were the three Rs — Recognize, Report and Refrain: Recognize the signs of symptoms, report to a coach or trainer and refrain from rushing back to play.
Students also were shown how to use an AED (automated external defibrillator) and completed a CPR course.
“Don’t take it as a day off of school, take it to heart,” said Tommy Mallon. “Because really, you guys are the first ones there. If my teammate would’ve pulled me up, I might not be here.”
Tommy’s story was one of three told to Torrey Pines students to highlight head, heart and heat injuries, which are the most dangerous and catastrophic.
The hit that broke Tommy’s neck looked like just an average hit, not even particularly hard. Students watched video footage from the game of Tommy racing for a ball, colliding with a defender and crumpling to the ground.
Tommy said he wanted to get back up but Riki Kirchhoff, the certified athletic trainer who happened to be at the game that day, recognized the severity of Tommy’s injury when he told her that he could not feel the back of his head. At the hospital it was found he had broken his neck at the C-1 vertebra, where the skull and the spine connect.
Tommy was in a neck brace for four months, had a neck halo put in for nearly five months, and had to re-learn to walk. Currently a college student, he says he feels great now save for some trouble sleeping.
In addition to Tommy’s story, students also learned about Brittan Sutphin, who survived sudden cardiac arrest at a high school swim team practice in Colorado, and football player Will James, who survived a near fatal heat stroke at practice.
“These are three athletes saved by the power of knowledge,” said Kirchhoff, who led the course with TPHS’ trainer Christina Scherr.
Beth Mallon said, unfortunately, there are a lot more stories they could’ve told the students, as 40 young athletes died last year while playing their sport.
Mallon said that number could be even higher as there is no national registry for catastrophic sports injuries and it’s possible not all have been reported. There are cases that have gained national attention, such as the story of Wes Leonard, the high school basketball player who died of sudden cardiac arrest minutes after scoring the winning basket in a game —the school’s AED had not been charged. When Mallon spoke in Washington DC on behalf of Injured Athletes, she followed a woman who lost her daughter to cardiac arrest, the school’s AED was locked in the nurse’s office and no one had the key.
“There’s just story after story after story of preventable deaths and it’s just heartbreaking,” she said.
Mallon’s intent with the high school program is to give the students a positive program and focus on prevention. All three athletes featured are alive because of the actions taken by their athletic trainers, coaches and teammates.
Concussion awareness is one important aspect of the program. When asked how many of the athletes in the room had suffered concussions while playing their sport, a large majority raised their hands. Determined young athletes, like Tommy, have learned to play through pain and to keep going no matter what.
The athletes may not have been aware that only 10 percent of concussions cause a lack of consciousness, that teenagers take longer to heal from concussions and that teenagers are more susceptible to multiple concussions, which can cause serious second impact syndrome.
Scherr said that athletes need to be 100 percent healed before returning to play and need to give themselves time to heal.
“Be honest,” said Tommy in the video. “It’s your life, your brain, your future.”
Brittan Sutphin was at Torrey Pines last week, in addition to sharing her story through a video. In her junior year of high school, she was at swim practice when her heart stopped and she drifted to the bottom of the pool. Lifegaurds were able to use an AED at the pool to shock her heart.
In the event of sudden cardiac arrest, a person has just minutes to have their heart re-started or risk permanent brain damage and death. The students learned that Torrey Pines has four AEDs on campus, one of them was donated to the lacrosse team and the others are located in the media center, gym and training room.
“I’m very lucky to be alive,” said Brittan. “I was really, really lucky that the AED was there.”
Brittan continues to play sports, now playing tennis at Claremont McKenna. She has an ICD (implantable cardioverter-defibrillator) in her heart that shocks her within 10 seconds of cardiac arrest. It has already shocked her back once since she has been in college.
The athletes also learned from Will James’ story of heat illness, even though Scherr said it is not as big of an issue in San Diego’s climate. However, athletes do travel to warmer climates to compete so it is good information to know, she said.
James was at football practice in Arkansas when his body reached a temperature of 108 degrees.
A person suffering from external heat stroke must be submerged in ice water within 10 minutes or risk the body’s organs shutting down one by one — fortunately, James’ school had a tub and buckets of ice nearby and a trainer, coaches and teammates submerged him before help was able to arrive. If a school doesn’t have a tub like Will’s school does, cold wet towels can be wrapped around the limbs.
At least 10 athletes died last year from incidents similar to Will’s. Will spent three weeks in the hospital recovering and an additional four weeks on dialysis.
“There’s no excuse for any heat stroke death, it can be prevented with the proper precautions,” Will said in the video.
Beth Mallon said while schools like Torrey Pines, Santa Fe Christian and the schools featured in the program are lucky to have certified athletic trainers, some schools are not able to staff the position due to tight school budgets. Not to mention, California is still one of only four states in the U.S. that does not mandate a certified trainer be on the field for high velocity, contact sports.
Beth Mallon said she is just hoping her pilot program can be part of the solution. As stated numerous times during the Athletes Saving Athletes program, “What you know might help save someone you know.”
For more information, visit www.injuredathletes.org.