New Tool Against Trauma

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Eric Bailey built his machine to save lives. That's the beauty of the hole in the middle of the white contraption that can either roll on wheels or crawl along the floor via tractor treads. You can slide people's heads through the hole, let the machine go to work -- searching, studying -- and within minutes a picture will emerge. If trouble lurks inside the skull and the machine does what it is supposed to do, the danger will be uncovered, and a life will be saved.

This is what happened one night four months ago at the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight in Las Vegas. On something of a whim, Bailey brought his machine called the CereTom, which is essentially a portable CT scanner, to the arena. If the purpose of the machine is to identify head trauma, then where better to demonstrate it than at a prizefight? He tucked the CereTom behind a curtain and asked each boxer that night to step in for a quick exam after his bout.

Then something appeared in the scan of a boxer named Lorenzo Bethea, something that would never have been detected in a regular examination. There was blood on the brain that if unnoticed and untreated could well have killed Bethea. An ambulance was dispatched, a stretcher rolled in, and Bethea survived.

"Why was Lorenzo bleeding, and no one else was?" asked Bailey, a physician and chief executive of NeuroLogica Corp., a medical supply company.

No one knows. But the Las Vegas incident intrigued enough teams in the NFL that two -- the Oakland Raiders and Indianapolis Colts -- have agreed to use the CereTom in their home stadiums. The hope, Bailey said, is that teams can use the CereTom to immediately examine players for serious underlying conditions that might not register in regular screenings.

"This should help advise the physicians and help make decisions in real time," Bailey said.

Since this is the NFL and most teams cloak anything involving medicine in secrecy, the Colts and Raiders have said little about the device. A request to the Colts to ask how the team planned to use it was politely declined, citing medical privacy laws.

Still, the league is obsessed with head trauma this year after medical evidence began to emerge in a raw and unstudied form indicating concussions in football might lead to early-onset dementia or perhaps Alzheimer's disease.

Concussions came to the fore again this week when Lions quarterback Jon Kitna suffered one Sunday. After team doctors cleared him, Kitna reentered the game after missing two quarters. The following day, Kitna said he felt no effects from the head trauma.

The NFL held a symposium on the subject in Chicago late in the spring and required every team to send its trainers and team doctors. It is requiring teams to compile baseline tests on all players, and hopes players will report their coaches and trainers if they feel they are being pushed back to action too soon after suffering a head injury by calling a hotline number.

As a consequence, teams are scrambling to find new and innovative ways to deal with head injuries. At least one other team has admitted looking at the CereTom but has so far not made the move to install it. No one knows how much of a difference, if any, it will make in the NFL.

"It's not a bad idea to have a CAT scan after an injury, but it's not going to help much," said Julian Bailes, chairman of West Virginia University's Department of Neurosurgery. "We used to say the old definition of a concussion [is] there is no anatomical damage. Now we know there is microscopic damage, but you never see that in a CAT scan."

In other words, Bailey's machine will not be able to dictate a concussion.

What it can do is identify bleeding on the brain. It also can provide instant data on other injuries by producing an image much faster than the traditional MRI exam.

By being on location in a stadium, the information can be relayed in minutes, which is a better alternative than transporting the player to a hospital. The hole in the middle of the CereTom is big enough to allow doctors to stick players' arms or legs through the opening, revealing breaks and/or ligament damage.

But the device was not invented for sports. Rather Bailey created the CereTom, which costs approximately $300,000, for hospitals and medical centers. It wasn't until Bethea that the idea of letting NFL teams have the technology was launched.

Bailey, who has invented other medical devices, invented the CereTom in memory of his brother, Alan, who died after a 1992 car accident in which he appeared to be perfectly fine, save for a small contusion on his head. But hidden inside was a blood clot that grew and burst, and hours after the accident Tom was dead.

"It shouldn't happen to people, you know?" Bailey said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company