Commentary

Athlete advocates for safety on field

Originally Published: December 23, 2011
By John Waller

May 23, 2009 -- two weeks before his high school graduation: Tommy Mallon remembers playing his final lacrosse game. He also remembers being put on a spine board by paramedics and vomiting nonstop in the ambulance on the way to the trauma center at nearby Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., to get treated for a broken neck.

"Right when it happened, the whole world went really bright," he said.

Mallon, playing for Santa Fe Christian (Solana Beach, Calif.), was going for a ground ball with less than two minutes remaining in a playoff game when he collided awkwardly with an opposing Poway (Poway, Calif.) player.

If I had gotten up when it happened, I would've probably died or been a quadriplegic.

-- Tommy Mallon
Mallon laid facedown on his knees and clutched his head. Mallon, then 18, knew the pain of a concussion all too well. His freshman year, a helmet-to-helmet hit during a football game gave him his first. His sophomore year, he got undercut going up for a layup in a basketball game and smacked his head on the gym floor for his second.

Riki Kirchhoff, 26 at the time of the lacrosse accident and the high school's assistant athletic trainer, ran over. The collision didn't look particularly bad, but then again, Mallon, a defenseman known for his toughness on the field, probably wouldn't have gone down unless he was hurt. Mallon remembers telling Kirchhoff that he felt fine -- it was most likely just a stinger, maybe another concussion, he said -- and he remembers her insisting that he stay down, mainly for precautionary reasons.

After a quick series of tests, Kirchhoff, who was relying on her training, discovered that, although Mallon could move his fingers and toes, he couldn't feel the back of his head. With Dr. Eric Waldrip, a team parent and anesthesiologist who was in the stands, on the scene as well, Kirchhoff had Mallon lie down. She stabilized his head and neck and called for an ambulance.

"It wasn't until later that day, when the doctor came in, that I realized how serious it was," Mallon said.

In addition to suffering another concussion, Mallon had fractured his first cervical vertebra, the one that links the skull to the spine. Pressure from the break was pinching his vertebral artery, the doctor said, restricting blood flow to his brain.

"If I had gotten up when it happened, I would've probably died or been a quadriplegic," Mallon, now a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of San Diego, said the doctors told him.

Athletes Saving Athletes

Tommy Mallon
Beth Mallon/ESPNHSMallon fractured his first cervical (C1) vertebra after a collision with an opposing player.
Mallon's mother, Beth, also remembers.

Beth, who was the team's photographer, remembers standing on the sideline and watching the hit. She remembers being so close and feeling so helpless. These memories are what inspired Beth and Tommy to establish Advocates for Injured Athletes, a nonprofit dedicated to helping keep athletes safe, just over a year ago. These memories are what inspired them to start Athletes Saving Athletes, the foundation's new initiative that will get under way in January.

"There are so many things on that day that went right that could've gone so wrong," Beth said. "All I kept thinking about was what does somebody do who doesn't have all these resources? I felt like I couldn't sit back and not try to change things."

Since that spring day, Beth has been on a mission to make sure that when disaster strikes, as many athletes as possible receive the same care her son did.

Through Advocates for Injured Athletes, Beth, Tommy and others have been working to get certified athletic trainers such as Kirchhoff, who is pursuing her doctorate in physical therapy, at every high school in California. They've been fundraising to supply needy schools with grants for the position, and they've been going through legislative channels.

About 35 percent of California high schools have certified athletic trainers. That number includes schools with either full- or part-time certified athletic trainers, according to Mike West, president of the California Athletic Trainers' Association. It's a rough number, said West, because it's always changing.

Although this fight continues, Beth couldn't wait for it to finish. Last year, Beth, who has a background in preventative medicine, talked with leading medical experts around the country to develop a much more immediate and cost-effective plan.

"What I found was there's so much incredible information out there," she said, "but somehow there's this gap between what the experts are talking about and what's really getting down to the athletes."

In the following months, Beth -- along with Tommy, Kirchhoff and Tommy's high school lacrosse coach, Danny Kolts -- worked on the curriculum for what is now Athletes Saving Athletes, a one-day educational program aimed at closing this gap.

Through the program, athletes will learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of head and neck injuries, sudden cardiac arrest and heat illness. They will also become CPR and AED certified through a partnership with the American Red Cross.

"This is basic, basic, basic information," Beth said. "I mean, these kids can learn sophisticated plays. They're smart kids; there's no reason they can't learn a few basic signs and symptoms.

"We've just never brought it directly to the athletes. We've always just taught the coach or athletic trainer."

Athletes Saving Athletes will launch as a pilot program at 10 San Diego County high schools in January. Thirty athletes -- one from each team -- will take the course at each high school, with the expectation that they'll bring the lessons learned back to their teammates.

The program will be taught by a certified athletic trainer, with a representative from the Red Cross on hand to administer the certification portion. The initial sessions are being funded by a $25,000 donation from a private donor through the Red Cross.

Tommy plans to attend as many of the sessions as he can.

"If we can save one life, it's worth it," he said.

Moving On

Mallon will never again be able to play the sport that he loves.

After two 10-day stints in the hospital following his injury, he was in a halo brace for the next six months. After that, in January 2010, he began intense physical therapy while enrolling at San Diego, where he's studying political science and business administration. He previously had been set to attend Chapman University, where he was planning to play lacrosse.

Although he has recovered, Tommy still has trouble sleeping and occasional headaches from the concussions. His neck is still too fragile for him to play contact sports, even beach volleyball, or to go bodysurfing or snowboarding. However, he has been trying to focus on what he can do, not what he can't.

"In the grand scheme of things, I'm living," he said. "I'm at this great university, and we started this thing that's going to save lives."

Maybe, someday, that's what people will remember about Tommy.