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Cocaine Is Not the Only Killer of Athletes : Sudden Deaths Can Often Be Traced to Unsuspected Heart Problems

July 09, 1986|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | Times Staff Writer

The recent deaths of Maryland basketball star Len Bias and Cleveland Brown safety Don Rogers have alerted people to the dangers of cocaine. However, cocaine isn't the only thing that has struck down young athletes.

The sudden deaths of volleyball star Flo Hyman, football player Larry Gordon of the Miami Dolphins and basketball player Paul Stewart of Cleveland State has focused the attention on problems of the heart.

Doctors have no answers as to why some athletes, supposedly in the best shape of their lives, die with no warning.

"Cardiovascular disease in young athletes is usually unsuspected during life, and most athletes who die suddenly have experienced no cardiac symptoms," Drs. Barry J. Maron, Stephen E. Epstein and William C. Roberts concluded in a January report in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

"In only about 25% of those competitive athletes who die suddenly is underlying cardiovascular disease detected or suspected before participation, and rarely is the correct clinical diagnosis made."

Dr. Augusto Silva, a cardiologist in private practice in Burbank, breaks it down to even simpler terms, comparing heart failure to an electrical shock. One bad jolt can do it, no matter what shape the subject is in.

"A person can be very healthy and all of the sudden he throws an extra heart beat, and that acts as a trigger," he said. "It throws the heart into ventricular fibrillation, which basically is a cardiac arrest.

"Most of the times, the athlete at that level (of competition) is like a Rolls-Royce, except with the engine out of tune."

Added Dr. Carl L. Tommaso, the acting director of cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical School in Baltimore: "The real answer may lie in a congenital abnormality of the heart or some kind of acquired infection. That's speaking of young athletes in general. Even something like hardening of the arteries could happen."

Further speculation includes Marfan's syndrome, a condition that strikes tall individuals with long limbs and loose joints and causes the aorta--the body's main blood artery--to form in a weakened state so that it ruptures under certain stresses. That is what killed the 31-year-old Hyman in January during a match in Japan.

Gordon, who collapsed while jogging in 1982, was the victim of idiopathic hyper-tropic cardiomyopathy, an abnormal growth of the heart muscle tissue that finally chokes off the blood flow to the organ.

Marfan's syndrome was also blamed in the death of Maryland basketball player Chris Patton, who collapsed during a pickup basketball game in 1976, and swimmer Steve Shults the same year.

"The difficulty is that a heart can stop not because of disease but because of other things," Dr. Robert Voy, the director of sports medicine for the U.S. Olympic Committee, told United Press International. "Sudden fright, an electrolyte imbalance and physical exertion can all cause irregular rhythm that leads to death.

"You can screen athletes until the cows come home and still they suffer from sudden death."


Recent deaths of young athletes due to heart ailments: April 30, 1986--Paul Stewart, 19, Cleveland State basketball player, collapsed while playing in a pickup basketball game.

Feb. 5, 1986--Steve Higginbotham, 17, Plano, Tex., high school basketball player, collapsed after a game. He died of cardiomyopathy, an irregular heart muscle.

Jan. 24, 1986--Flo Hyman, 31, former U.S. Olympic volleyball player, died during a game in Matsue, Japan, when her aorta ruptured, a result of Marfan syndrome.

June 3, 1985--Jeff Drenth, 24, world-class distance runner for Athletics West, collapsed after a training run in Eugene, Ore. He had a history of arrhythmia, an irregular heart beat.

Sept. 2, 1985--Edward D. Robinson, 19, Texas Tech basketball player, collapsed during a pickup game.

Aug. 13, 1985--Elwood Williams, 15, Salinas, Calif., high school football player, collapsed during a workout.

May 30, 1984--Jay Goleman, 17, recreational league baseball player in Monroe, La., collapsed during a workout and died two hours later.

May 16, 1984--Garnett Freeman, 16, Little Rock, Ark., high school basketball player, collapsed during a workout.

Nov. 10, 1983--George Robinson Jr., 17, Chicago high school basketball player, collapsed during a workout.

Sept. 24, 1983--Fred Guedes, 17, Yonkers, N.Y., high school football player, collapsed during a game. He suffered from a congenital heart ailment.

June 25, 1983--Larry Gordon, 28, Miami Dolphin linebacker, collapsed while jogging. He had cardiac arrhythmia, an irregular heart beat.

Sept. 17, 1982--Arturo Brown, 21, Boston University basketball player, collapsed during a pickup game. His heart had been twice the normal size from birth.

Aug. 24, 1982--Robert Novak, 14, Wesleyville, Pa., high school football player, collapsed during a workout.

Jan. 1, 1982--Chris Emerson, 19, University of Kansas football player, died after being admitted to the hospital because of chest pains. He had a blood clot in the heart.

Dec. 12, 1981--Leon Richardson, age unreported, UC Davis basketball player, collapsed during a game. He had an enlarged heart and heart disease.

Aug. 11, 1981--Jon Walsh, 17, Fairfax, Va., high school football player, collapsed during a workout and died two hours later.

Feb. 6, 1981--Antonio Britt, 16, Cambridge, Mass., high school basketball player, collapsed during a game. He suffered from congestive heart failure.

Dec. 1, 1980--Paul Kinney, 18, Baltimore high school basketball player, died during a game.

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