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High schools: In wake of player deaths, preparedness for medical emergencies improves only slightly.

September 06, 2002

In a span of five weeks last fall, four athletes from Southern California high schools died during or after competitions and practices. Matt Colby, 17, a football linebacker for Costa Mesa High, passed out shortly after taking himself out of a game complaining of a headache. He was taken off life support the next morning, Sept. 29, having never regained consciousness.

The same day, Jason Kortekaas, 17, a runner for Victorville Silverado, was stricken while racing over a three-mile desert cross-country course in temperatures near 100 degrees. He slipped into a coma and died 11 days later.

Jonathan Diaz, 17, a football lineman for Wilmington Banning, broke down as he walked through plays during a practice on a cool, overcast afternoon on Nov. 12 and could not be revived.

Four days after Diaz died, Ryan King, 16, a soccer player for Manhattan Beach Mira Costa, collapsed after jogging a warmup lap at the start of a practice.

Colby died from bleeding and swelling in the brain that medical examiners said was probably caused by blows to the head while playing football. Kortekaas, Diaz and King had heart ailments.

All four had this much more in common: Their deaths, and other highly publicized tragedies on athletic fields nationwide, prompted many of the same questions. Who determines athletes are healthy enough to compete? Who is entrusted to provide medical care? Would additional safety measures have saved them?

As another high school sports season begins, The Times found that little has changed regarding health care and safety in the nearly one year since these deaths.

There have been some improvements. The Los Angeles Unified School District, in response to the fatal heart problems, has joined a few other smaller districts in the region in purchasing heart defibrillation units for each of its campuses. Also, officials are hoping a new football helmet that became available this year will help curb the number of concussions.

But elsewhere, advances are coming more slowly. Many schools still don't have medical personnel on campus for practices and will be forced to scramble to provide coverage for games. Indeed, instead of more medical professionals volunteering to help, some are turning away--concerned that they are not qualified to diagnose maladies outside their expertise and worried that they might be held financially responsible if a mistake is made.

Today's stories:

* Doctors give some preseason physicals failing grades. D14

* Health care experts call trainers a necessity, but at many schools they are still a luxury. D14

* A "Revolution" in football helmet safety? D15

* Schools are getting wired to fight heart ailments. D14

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