Sunday, August 9, 2009

My Congrats to Derrick Thomas on the HOF

In light of last night’s NFL Hall of Fame ceremony I wanted to pay a small tribute to the former great Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, who was inducted posthumously. I was never a Chiefs fan but as a follower of sports in general I always thought he was an incredible, bad-ass linebacker who in a stellar 11-year career changed the whole defensive game. Entire offensive game plans were geared around slowing him down. He was also great off the field as he was highly involved with charity work, including his own Third and Long Foundation which promised to “sack illiteracy.”

But I think that what has been understated in the last nine years is that DT died of medical complications related to a catastrophic spinal cord injury he sustained in late January 2000. He was traveling to the Kansas City Airport in a snowstorm and got thrown from his car in a traffic accident (he was speeding, weaving cars, and not wearing his seatbelt). I remember first seeing the news break on SportsCenter and it was very disappointing to learn about. The early reports were that he was paralyzed from the chest down, same as me. So my heart immediately went out to him because I had been there, done that, and knew what he was going through at that moment. My first instinct was to try and contact him somehow and offer up my friendly insight as a fan and a friend, but ultimately decided not to because I figured getting to him directly may be a fruitless effort. Still, I feel like I have an instant connection with the people who’ve suffered SCIs after me.

Unfortunately, he died two weeks later of a pulmonary embolism. The early reports were that he died of a heart attack which mystified me because he was barely 30 and a highly fine-tuned athlete. I was angry because I figured his medical staff must have messed something up. But when more accurate details followed that it was a massive blood clot that developed in his paralyzed lower extremities and traveled through his venous system to his lungs then it all made much more sense.

To put the proper emphasis on it, blood clots can become major issues for folks with spinal cord injuries, at all stages of their SCI journey. From a medical standpoint, if blood clots get loose they can travel to the heart, brain, or lungs and cause strokes, heart attacks, etc. I remember doing a group workout session at Craig Hospital in Denver once and they shut the show down for one guy because they felt some swollen tightness in his leg, indicative early signs of a blood clot. They brought in a flat board and lifted him up onto a hospital bed right away, making sure to keep him real flat and still so the clot didn’t shake loose. It was a tense few minutes and a scary sight to observe so soon after my own injury.

I myself was lucky enough to evade the blood clot thing at all stages of my post-injury rehab. In fact, I wouldn’t have a sniff of an issue of it until 2003 when on the weekend before I started law school I was hospitalized for five days with a leg infection and blood clots in my right calf. I was shocked because I lead a pretty active life, as compared to one that’s much more sedentary, so I'm not sure how it all came on, but it was what it was. I would go on to have two more relapses in the following year, and the pattern was always the same: precautionary ultrasound, prescription blood thinners, frequent leg elevation, and constant, internal prayer that the clot wouldn’t break loose so I would suffer a stroke or heart attack at any moment during the indefinite recovery period. Thankfully, the clots just went away each time, and I haven’t had any subsequent blood clot issues since the spring of 2004 either.

Anyway, the news of DT’s death was a crushing revelation. I remember going out into our kitchen to fill up my water cup and telling my mom that he passed. As I did so my voice cracked a little and I had to fight back a tear, both of which were unexpected floods of emotion. But it was a big deal to me at the time. It was quite sobering and showed how traumatic spinal cord injuries can be, not just at the instant of the accident but in the immediate amount of medical care required to sustain overall physical stability.

So at the least listening to his induction speech last night made me reflect on how fragile and dangerous this disability can be, and how quickly things can go south medically, even if you’re in stable health like me. In that regard, I’ve been pretty lucky to have avoided all of the major medical pitfalls that come with this lifestyle for thirteen years and counting.

So congrats to Derrick Thomas and his family on the Hall of Fame induction, and may he continue to rest in peace. He was a good player, a good person, and one of my “fallen SCI brothers.”

1 comment:

  1. Great point about spinal injuries being dangerous beyond the initial accident. Another remarkable post Shawn!