What Parents and Coaches Need to Know to Keep Athletes Safe to Succeed
By Alicia Wanek
My son will start playing middle school sports this upcoming year, so this is the first summer where I’ve dealt with figuring out how to add summer football and conditioning camps into our already packed schedule. We’ve always encouraged our kids to participate in sports, knowing that outside of keeping them fit and healthy, sports teach kids how to be part of a team, how to work toward goals, and how to win humbly or lose graciously. Kids who participate in sports often have decreased depression and anxiety and enhanced social interaction, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
I know all that, but as a mom, my thought is, “Isn’t it dangerous to play in this Texas heat?” “Are the coaches keeping an eye on my baby?” Knowing how hard he plays on the field and on the court, I worry that he’ll push himself too hard and won’t take a break if he needs it. He gets tired of me reminding him to rehydrate and tell the coach if he doesn’t feel well, but it’s that one story you see on the news every year that lets me know I can’t remind him enough.
When you live in a state where the temperature heat index can rise in excess of 130 degrees in the summer, heat stroke is a real concern, especially since outdoor practices—whether it’s sports or marching band—are often being held during the hottest part of the day. Your athlete should be getting water breaks every 15 minutes, says Dr. Troy Smurawa, M.D., Director of Pediatric Sports Medicine at the Children’s Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. It’s okay for you as a parent to talk to the coaches to make sure they are encouraging kids to drink water, but it’s equally important for you to make sure the kids know it’s okay to get water when they need it, even if it’s not an official break.
The signs of heat stroke can come on gradually, beginning with heat exhaustion (see sidebar), but it’s especially scary to consider what can happen when a child collapses without warning and without any symptoms. That’s what happened in 2009 when Zachary Schrah, a seemingly healthy 16-year-old collapsed on the football field of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). The Schrah’s learned later that Zac died from a congenital heart disease called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), a common cause of SCA in young people, including young athletes. HCM is a condition in which the heart muscle becomes thick, making it difficult for blood to leave the heart and forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood. It also can make it harder for the heart to relax and fill with blood.
Karen Schrah made it her mission to do what she could to keep other families from suffering the same tragedy she had through the non-profit she established, Living for Zachary. Today, any parent can schedule a “Living for Zachary Heart Screening” created and provided by The Heart Hospital Baylor Plano for youth ages 12-22 that can help detect heart abnormalities that may lead to Sudden Cardiac Arrest. Call 1-800-4BAYLOR to schedule one for your child. If something is detected, your child will likely be referred for further testing. Facilities like Envision Imaging can provide specialty CT exams for the heart, fluoroscopy, ultrasound and angiography to determine the exact nature of the concern. (They can also offer walk-in X-rays when you want to quickly determine if your child has a broken bone or just a sprain when you pick them up from practice!)
Another mission of Living for Zachary is to ensure that youth-based organizations all have Automated External Defibrillators (AED) on-site and someone trained to use them. If used within three minutes after collapse from sudden cardiac arrest, the chance of survival increases to 70%.
Plano mom Ann Nunnally says, “I will never know if an AED would have saved my son’s life.” In 2004, her 16-year-old son Will was participating in a summer school PE class playing floor hockey when he sat down and collapsed. A young friend of his as well as the school nurse attempted CPR, and he was transported quickly to the hospital via ambulance, but it was too late. Ann learned that just months before, AEDs had been donated to the athletic department of all three senior high schools in the city, but it was locked in a cabinet in the trainer’s office. No one knew it was there; no one knew how to work it. Today, thanks to efforts from Ann and others, there is now a plan in place in every school across Texas to ensure AEDs are available and that someone on staff is trained to use them. Ensure the facility where your child is going to camp, swimming, or practicing has one easily accessible.
When it comes to the health of your child, you just can’t be too safe. It really comes down to being an advocate for your child. Don’t worry about being “that parent” who appears too overprotective. Also, tell your children what the warning signs are of dehydration, heat stroke or sudden cardiac arrest so they can recognize it in themselves and in their friends. And certainly make sure the coach knows the signs, too. After all, they’re still your babies.
Early signs of dehydration:
• Decreased athletic performance
What to do when dehydration is suspected:
Athletes with signs of dehydration should rest and drink water or sports drinks. If the athlete doesn’t improve, feels dizzy or faint or has not had much urine output, he should be seen by a doctor. Seek emergency treatment if the child is disoriented, unable to drink or has pale skin.
Heat stroke symptoms include: A body temperature that rises dangerously high—above 104˚ Fahrenheit
• Absence of sweating
• Confusion, disorientation
• Flushed, hot and dry skin
• Loss of consciousness
• Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
• Rapid heartbeat and breathing
• Severe headache
• Weakness and/or dizziness
Before heat stroke symptoms appear, kids often show symptoms of milder heat illnesses—heat cramps and heat exhaustion. If your child complains of painful muscle cramps in his or her legs, arms or abdomen after exercise in hot weather, bring him or her to a cool place, introduce fluids that contain salt (like sports drinks) and gently stretch or massage sore muscles.
Warning signs and symptoms of Sudden Cardiac Arrest Fainting or seizure during or after physical activity
• Fainting or seizure resulting from emotional excitement, distress or startle
• Chest pain or discomfort/ racing heartbeat
• Unexplained fainting or seizures
• Family history of heart disease
• Unusual shortness of breath
• Unusual fatigue/tiredness
• Dizziness/lightheadedness during or after physical activity
• Family history of unexpected sudden death during
physical activity or during a seizure, or any other unexplained sudden death of an
otherwise healthy family member under age 50
Call 911 immediately if any of these signs and/or symptoms appears life threatening. Otherwise, consult a physician promptly if you or someone you know has one or more of these signs and/or symptoms.
Courtesy of Living for Zachary/Parent Health Watch LivingforZachary.org/ Courtesy of Children’s Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine