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Take precautions against heatstroke this summer

Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer died of complications of heatstroke during training camp in 2001.
Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer died of complications of heatstroke during training camp in 2001. (2000 Photo By Tom Olmscheid/associated Press)
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By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, July 1, 2010

It has been nearly nine years, but I still vividly remember the day Korey Stringer died. A mammoth offensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings, Stringer collapsed at training camp, where, according to some reports, the heat index had reached 110. He died later that day of complications of heatstroke. When he was taken to the hospital, the 335-pound Pro Bowler had a body temperature of 108 degrees.

If the 27-year-old star could die under the watchful eye of the Vikings, which had invested millions of dollars in him, and the NFL, which controls the sport closely, it was impossible not to wonder how much risk the heat posed for the typical weekend athlete.

In fact, according to the institute founded in Stringer's name, the number of deaths from exertional heatstroke, while still tiny, is on the rise. There were 18 between 2005 and 2009, up from 11 in the previous five-year period and 13 in the five years before that. There had not been more than nine in any previous period over the past 35 years.

"Almost all are kids," says Douglas Casa, chief operating officer of the Korey Stringer Institute, which opened in April at the University of Connecticut as part of an agreement between Stringer's widow, Kelci, and the NFL. Kelci Stringer's lawsuits against the league, the Vikings and medical personnel were settled or thrown out without admissions of culpability on their part. She still has one pending against Riddell, which manufactured the helmet and shoulder pads her husband was wearing.

Most often, the deaths occur on football fields, during preseason conditioning camps and practices, when teens or young men are pushing themselves in the heat, sometimes after a sedentary summer, Casa says. Outdoor runners and others are more susceptible during races, when, like youngsters trying to secure a spot on a team, they ignore the signals their bodies are sending, he says.

As we endure the hottest June on record and move into the traditionally sweltering summer months, Casa and other experts warn that we should take precautions against exertional heatstroke and other heat-related illnesses: heat exhaustion, heat syncope and heat cramps.

Even severe heatstroke is "100 percent survivable if someone goes in a cold-water immersion within 10 minutes of collapse," Casa says. The water must be stirred frequently. Relatives of a heatstroke victim are often traumatized again when they discover that with "a $100 kiddie pool and ice and water . . . my child . . . or spouse could still be alive," Casa says. Another way to quickly cool a heatstroke victim is to wrap him in wet towels and replenish them often.

Quickly recognizing symptoms and responding is critical. Heatstroke is characterized by a core body temperature greater than 104 degrees, increased heart rate, abnormally low blood pressure, sweating, hyperventilation, disorientation and confusion, dizziness, irrational behavior, irritability, headache, inability to walk, loss of balance or muscle function, vomiting, diarrhea, collapse, seizure and coma.

Heat exhaustion can have some of the same signs, but a major difference is that the body temperature (obtained rectally) is below 104 degrees. Victims also can suffer from fatigue, weakness, heavy sweating, dehydration, sodium loss, fainting, dizziness, irritability, headache, hyperventilation, nausea, vomiting and decreased urine output, blood pressure and muscle coordination.

But half of all heatstrokes occur without warning. As a teenager, Casa was running one of the best races of his high school career when he collapsed. He says he felt nothing that could have alerted him to the impending crisis.

Last summer, Edwin "Dek" Miller, a 16-year-old at Northwest High School in Germantown, collapsed during preseason football drills on a relatively mild 81-degree day and died in the hospital early the next morning. A preliminary autopsy indicated heatstroke, though the final report was inconclusive, said Alston Nah, the teen's uncle.

"Dek was quiet, and he would run through a wall for the coaches," Nah says. "In fact, the story one of his teammates told at the vigil for him was that he appeared lethargic that day, and every race he would come in last." The coaches penalized Miller's group by making them run more, he said.

"On the last one before he collapsed, Dek ran from the rear and came in first, ensuring that his team, his guys, wouldn't have to run anymore."

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