My son, Zac, suffered a heat stroke in August 2018, he was 15 years old. Thankfully he has a very rare, happy ending – recovering from what is usually a life-ending incident for students, and was able to play football again.
Football practice was grueling on that Wednesday. The players were being “punished” for a bad scrimmage earlier in the week. When I say punishing I mean 276 up downs at the end of two hours of pushing sleds, sprints and drills. For whatever reason Zac’s body couldn’t handle the heat and after the up downs he collapsed. Trainers and coaches put ice on him out on the field and then brought him to the locker room and held him in a cold shower. He was non responsive through all this and EMS was called. The telephone call I got said he had had some trouble with the heat that day. At the hospital his internal temperature was 106. He was cooled down more and once his body was at a safe temp (104) he was put on a ventilator and sedated. CT scans showed normal brain activity. He was at risk for liver failure, kidney failure, lung and heart issues. With an exertional heat stroke every cell in your body is affected. Nine days later he was successfully taken off the ventilator and was able to come home after another 3 days in the hospital.
We had researched exertional heat stroke while in the hospital and found an agency called The Korey Stringer Institute. Korey Stringer was a NFL player that died of heat stroke and this is the foundation his wife started for the prevention of sudden death in athletes. I contacted KSI and in February we made our first trip to Connecticut and the University of Conn where KSI is housed for Zac to complete a heat tolerance test (HTT). The HTT test was designed for special forces in Iraq – given the hot, humid conditions – to determine a body’s ability to regulate internal heating and cooling. This test is conducted in a climate controlled room at 104 degrees and 40% humidity and requires the patient to walk for two hours on a treadmill. Passing the test means your internal temp plateaus and does not rise above 101.3. Zac did not pass the first time.
We traveled back to KSI in May where his test was better, his body did start to regulate temperature but at 102.5 so another failed test. In July we traveled back again and this time he passed. This passing was after an intense 3 months of conditioning and heat acclamation work but it paid off and he was cleared to play football again with some safety measures in place.
The first safety measure is that we monitored his temp with a pill that he ingests and can measure his internal temp with a hand held monitor. Shade, appropriate water breaks and wet bulb temps are all being carefully monitored and enforced. But the most important tool is the ice baths that are available on the field.
Here is the most important part and what I want athletics programs nationwide to understand – experts told us repeatedly that an ice bath, used properly, will save an athletes life 100% of the time. Tubs for ice baths cost $125-$150. They are not required in most states but with 50+ deaths in high school athletes should they not be something every high school has at the ready? 50 kids and counting have died because schools don’t make the effort to have them available or just don’t understand the seriousness of heat stroke. In conjunction with KSI and Below 104 I want to advocate for ice baths in every school, in every state, to prevent exertional heat stroke as a cause of sudden death in athletes. As a mom who is very fortunate to have her son alive, I am sharing my sons story in the hopes that, in the future, every parent of a exertional heat stroke victim is able to have the same happy ending for their athletes.