Sudden death seems to be going around lately.
On March 19, Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch during an FA Cup match. Immediate and persistent intervention allowed him to survive, despite having no heartbeat of his own for 78 minutes.
On April 15, Piermario Morosini of Serie B side Livorno collapsed on the pitch. He wasn’t so lucky, being declared dead on arrival at the hospital.
Today, Norwegian Olympic swimmer Alexander Dale Oen was found dead in his bathroom at a team training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona. There is zero evidence of foul play.
This rash of sudden, inexplicable deaths among seemingly healthy athletes is cause for concern. Here in the United States, a handful of young athletes die suddenly every year. Many more suffer sudden death on the field of play, but are revived.
While some of these deaths are blamed on commotio cordis–where a luckily-timed strike to the chest disrupts the heart’s rhythm, something youths are especially succeptible to–that certainly did not occur in both Muamba and Morosini’s cases. Muamba’s case was certainly not a case of doping; we would have found out by now if it were.
In many cases, these athletes have no idea there’s anything wrong. That is why athletes are screened annually in virtually every major league in the world. But even then, it doesn’t catch everything.
In 2008, Belgian defender Anthony van Loo was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a difficult-to-detect variety of genetic heart defect that is now classified in a group of diseases called Sudden Arrythmia Death Syndromes, or SADS. He was fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) and permitted to continue playing.
On June 8, 2009, while playing for KSV Roeseleare, van Loo collapsed from sudden cardiac arrest. He was shocked by his ICD a few seconds later, and revived within seconds with no ill effect. He was still taken to the hospital as a precaution, but didn’t need to stay long. Van Loo, now 23, currently plays for KV Mechelen in the top-flight Belgian Pro League.
Muamba’s future is uncertain, but if he does decide to play again, he will have another tool for his survival. Two weeks ago, he was also fitted with an ICD. There are a handful of footballers in Europe who now play with ICD’s.
The main key to preventing deaths like this is swift intervention. Certainly during this offseason, the cases of Fabrice Muamba and Piermario Morosini need to be compared to see how Muamba lived and Morosini died. Certainly if cases like Muamba and van Loo say anything, it’s that swift intervention is paramount, and figuring out how to give sudden death victims among athletes an optimum chance at survival is vital.
Perhaps recognition of the signs of a possible sudden cardiac death episode may be key as well. Muamba described feeling dizzy and light-headed, and seeing double, before collapsing. Those signs are very similar to what happens when someone receives a chokehold in MMA, cutting off the blood supply to the brain. In Muamba’s case, his heart may have already stopped at that time.
I do not profess to be a doctor, but I can put two and two together. If a soccer player is feeling light-headed, it’s probably a very good idea for then to go down and call or signal for help. If it is a case of sudden cardiac death, those moments of recognition that something is wrong may be the difference between life and death.
Since Orlando City’s presenting sponsor is Orlando Health, I would like to think they have made sure their emergency procedures give a stricken player of either team the best chances. If the unthinkable ever happens here, let’s hope that’s the case.