Jan 29, 2015
Back to Life, and the Court

By R.J. Anderson

Last September, former University of Tennessee men’s basketball player Emmanuel Negedu had a close brush with death when his heart suddenly stopped beating during a preseason workout at the school. In the aftermath, Tennessee determined that the risks were too high for Negedu to return to the court, ending his Volunteer career. Since then, Negedu has transferred to the University of New Mexico, which raised eyebrows by clearing the forward to play basketball again.
Negedu survived the heart attack thanks to quick thinking by University of Tennessee Associate Athletic Trainer Chad Newman, ATC, and Jason McVeigh, the school’s Director of Sports Medicine. Both were on hand at the workout and used CPR and an automated external defibrillator (AED) to bring the 21-year-old back to life. Negedu later had an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) surgically implanted in his chest to monitor his heart’s rhythm and deliver energy when an irregularity occurred.

A post-surgical evaluation revealed no structural damage to Negedu’s heart, nor was it enlarged. Still, he was told to avoid strenuous activity for the next three months–ending his season, and career, at Tennessee.

According to Stuart Bresee, MD, who treated Negedu at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, the initial diagnosis was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart muscle thickens, restricting its ability to pump blood. But upon further examination, genetic testing was all negative and Bresee determined that Negedu’s heart muscle was close to normal.

“He is probably on the lower risk of having that condition,” Bresee told Andy Katz of ESPN.com. “It’s pretty clear that people with his problem are more likely to have another incident, and if they did, the risk is death if the ICD didn’t work. So you can see why people would say why take that chance. But people choose to climb Mount Everest and choose to race Formula One cars. We’ve decided if a patient wants to participate, they can if they know the risks.”

Despite Bresee’s assessment, Tennessee determined that clearing Negedu to return was not a risk they were willing to take. It was not an unusual stance.

A report from the the 2005 Bethesda Conference Journal of the American College of Cardiology stated: “Although differences of opinions exist and little direct evidence is available, the panel asserts that the presence of an ICD should disqualify athletes from most competitive sports, including those that potentially involve bodily trauma.”

“You can’t blame them for following the national guidelines,” Bresee told Katz, referring to the Tennessee administration, which was counseled by Chris Klenck, MD, the lead physician of the Volunteer men’s athletic department.

Klenck told Katz he called doctors around the country and within the SEC to gauge public opinion on the subject. Meanwhile, Negedu had consulted with specialists from around the country and was told the ICD should not restrict him from competitive sports.

Klenck disagreed.

“We did not clear him on the fact that he had a cardiac arrest and required an ICD, under the guidelines,” he told Katz. “I didn’t feel it was a risk worth taking.”

Neither did Newman, who said he doesn’t believe ICDs are designed to support the stress put on an elite athlete’s heart.

“None of us wanted to deny him the chance to play,” he said. “But we didn’t feel it was the right thing for us to constantly worry and be concerned with.

“I know people who have had them go off while doing yard work,” Newman said. “But I understand that from a 21-year-old, it was his dream to play.”’

And Negedu was not ready to give up that dream. With the door to return closed at Tennessee, he visited the coaching staff at Indiana University. Though cleared by doctors and welcomed by the coaches, Indiana administrators were not willing to shoulder the risks.

“Everything had checked out normal, my stress test, echocardiograms,” Negedu told ESPN.com. “My doctor that did the surgery cleared me to play. I feel I can play. I’m fine. There was no evidence of damage to my heart. I went to Indiana, I talked to them, it was all good and then somebody said, ‘Sorry, it’s not going to work out.’ I was down. I didn’t want to talk to other schools. I wanted to go to Indiana. But after that I was open to going anywhere.”

Anywhere proved to be Albuquerque, N.M., where Negedu was given full clearance by University of New Mexico doctors and administrators. Head Coach Steve Alford said the school will file an appeal for Negedu to play immediately instead of sitting out a year.

New Mexico Athletic Director Paul Krebs, relied on the the university’s cardiologist and medical team, led by Chris McGrew, MD, to make the final decision. “Our doctors looked at all the records and cleared him to play,” Krebs told Katz. “They talked to the doctors at Indiana, too. Our doctors have fully vetted this.”

Still, Alford and his assistant coaches know that they have to be prepared for the worst. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t a risk to be aware of,” Alford told ESPN.com. “He has a defibrillator, so you have to be alert and the coaches should know CPR. Everybody knows the potential risks. But once he was cleared, the athletic director, myself, and the president all signed off on it.”

Still, Negedu must deal with the uncertainty that goes with playing a contact sport while having a surgically implanted device in his body. So last month, Negedu sought out former University of Texas-El Paso and Pepperdine player Will Kimble, who had an ICD installed after collapsing on the court in 2002.

After the incident, Pepperdine refused to clear Kimble and he transferred to UTEP, where he played 64 games in two seasons without incident. Kimble is now an assistant coach at Pepperdine.

“I told him that if you’re going to do it, you have to treat yourself like you’re any other player,” said Kimble, who wore a protective cover over his chest to help absorb any blows. “I told him that you have to be comfortable out there and you should be around people who are comfortable with you playing. He’s probably better off than four or five guys out there [playing basketball] that don’t even know they have a problem [without an ICD].”

Negedu is just happy to have that opportunity.

“I love to play the game, this is what I’ve been doing,” Negedu said. “Every morning I woke up and they said, you can’t do this, you can’t do this. You can’t run, you can’t jump for three months. I would go for another checkup and if they found something wrong with me, then OK, I won’t do this anymore. But they found nothing wrong, so that’s what keeps me going.”

R.J. Anderson is the Online Editor at
Training and Conditioning. He can be reached at [email protected].

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