Brain and Beyond: With Head Injuries in Spotlight, Hoag Hospital helps retired NFL palyers track their health

By The Orange County Register

NFL players push it to the limit on the field, often coming away with broken bones and banged-up bodies in the process. And they do so working as a team.

But after their career is over, some players can feel alone as they face the long-term health effects of their sport.

Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach is preparing to take on the role of teammate, helping former pros in retirement.

The Hoag Neurosciences Institute announced last month it’s partnering with the Cleveland Clinic in the Brain and Body Program, part of a collection of services set up by the nonprofit The Trust to help NFL veterans transition out of a career in football.

Hoag’s program comes at a time when more people – especially parents – have growing concerns over the long-term cognitive health effects of contact sports such as football.

Former players or their families have described wild mood swings and depression – even suicide – linked to a history of head trauma during play. This year, the family of sportscaster and NFL Hall of Fame running back Frank Gifford, who died in August at age 84, revealed doctors had found evidence of a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

And the controversial film “Concussion,” about pathologist Bennet Omalu’s findings of CTE in the brains of pro football players while working in the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pennsylvania, has generated much discussion leading up to its Christmas Day release.

The Trust was launched about two years ago through an agreement between the league and the NFL Players’ Association. Bahati Van Pelt, executive director of The Trust, said partnering with Hoag was an easy decision. Many of the players served by The Trust live in Orange County, Los Angeles or San Diego.

“One of our most popular sites was (the Cleveland Clinic’s) Las Vegas site,” Van Pelt said. “We hope this will cut down our guys’ travel times and be less stressful on careers or family.”

For now, the Brain and Body Program is focusing on players who retired within the past 15 years, Van Pelt said. About 1,900 players have enrolled with the Trust so far. Similar benefits for older players will launch in 2016, he said.

Former players get a complete workup from head to toe to evaluate their physical and cognitive status. They’ll have blood tests, a brain MRI, cognitive evaluations, psychological assessments and balance and sleep assessments. They’ll also receive nutrition information to help with their post-football diet as well as a life skills consultation.

Kirk Morrison, an eight-year NFL linebacker living in Los Angeles, said he signed up for an assessment in February. He’s not particularly concerned doctors will find anything worrisome, he said, but he’s glad to get a better sense of his health.

“It’s basically a check-up,” said Morrison, who was drafted in 2005 by the Oakland Raiders and later played for the Buffalo Bills. “(The assessment) is there to give you peace of mind.”

The process takes a day-and-a-half, said Michael Brant-Zawadzki, a senior physician executive with Hoag Hospital who is developing its program.

When the full checkup is complete, players are given a summary of health issues doctors noticed, what concerns they may run into in the future and what they can do to avoid or treat health pitfalls after years on the gridiron.

“We’re really pleased to participate in this program,” Brant-Zawadzki said. “We’re happy to help these (players) who’ve entertained us for so long.”

As the film “Concussion” illustrates, there’s greater awareness of the risks of football, from the professional level on down to youth sports. Brant-Zawadzki said it’s a good idea to be wary of potential long-term effects of any contact sport. But the doctor cautions that public awareness has outpaced science on the topic of sports-related concussions and brain disorders.

The public may have made connections between football and later disease that haven’t been sufficiently studied yet, he said. And variations, such as a person’s genetic predisposition to brain disease, may muddy the data, he added.

“There’s a dramatically growing awareness of the issue for young athletes as well as professional athletes,” Brant-Zawadzki said. “It’s changing things like how trainers treat athletes on the sidelines, how long to keep folks out if they’re injured.”

While monitoring brain health is a top priority, The Trust’s Van Pelt said tracking blood sugar level, hypertension and other functions can be just as important to ensure the health of retired players.

“We do understand the concern about head trauma and issues of that nature, but we also need to make sure we’re addressing all needs of the former player,” he said.

While the science catches up to public concern, programs such as Hoag’s can help players plan out their new life, Morrison said. He’s now a “captain” with The Trust and is reaching out to former players living in the area.

Morrison said that while a lot of players transition out of the NFL just fine, some stumble when trying to adjust their diet or exercise. A lot of newly retired players aren’t used to worrying about calories or planning a workout on their own.

“In the NFL especially, everything is right there for you,” Morrison said. When you retire, “suddenly it’s ‘Where do I go, how do I do this?’”

And tracking down proper medical care can be a whole new experience for an athlete used to having a team doctor at his beck and call, Morrison said.

“They need to figure out what their body needs.”

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