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Dangers of Heat Illness for your Student Athlete

Among US high school athletes, heat illness is the third leading cause of death. Many athletes, coaches, and parents are completely unaware of the dangers of heat illness. As highschool and college athletes train and compete during the hottest time of the year this invisible threat looms. 

Raising Awareness of Heat Illness

The Jordan McNair Foundation’s mission is to promote awareness and education around the prevention of heat related injuries, and to diminish the deaths of heat related tragedies. Chesapeake Family spoke with Marty McNair (MM), founder and father of the Jordan McNair Foundation and Dr. Rod Walters (RW) of the foundation’s medical advisory board. 

McNair states, “We started the foundation in June of 2018 after our son Jordan, a football player at the University of Maryland, passed away from complications of a heat related injury. We had so many questions when Jordan was injured and then as he fought for his life for two weeks in the hospital. But one of our biggest questions was, what happened and how do we go from a healthy child Tuesday morning to an emergency liver transplant Friday morning?” 

“We never want to have another family feeling anguish and pain that we felt from this 100% preventable injury. We’ve been trying to make a difference in keeping his legacy alive by keeping others safe,” says McNair.

CFL:  What is heat illness and who should be worried about it?

RW:  Exertional heat stroke does not discriminate against anyone. Our focus has been exertional heat stroke in sport related conditions, but it happens in the military and in other areas. Jordan’s incident occurred after a break from school during team conditioning. We know the prevalence of exertional heat stroke occurs in individuals that are not at an appropriate level of conditioning, or they’re not acclimatized to the environment. The classic two criteria that show you that you have a heat stroke are a mental status change [that can manifest as confusion or aggression], and an elevated core temperature that is above 104 degrees. It’s so important to recognize those signs because if we can [identify] that person within 30 minutes of the onset of those symptoms, we can revert those findings. But if it goes on then you have morbidity and mortality.

CFL:  Do you see this just as frequently in young kids as you do in adults?

RW: Korey Stringer [offensive tackle of the Minnesota Vikings] died 20 years ago and since that time, the NFL has really stepped up their game and they’ve changed their protocols and they’ve not had another heat related illness, but we have four or five of these a year in college and many more in high school. This shouldn’t be happening. 

CFL:  What are some recommendations that you would give to people, whether to parents, or coaches, or even students themselves that they can keep in mind and prevent these injuries?

RW:  I think in youth sports, it’s very important that coaches understand the warning signs. And they have an understanding of both the cause and the prevention of heat stroke. It’s not just about treatment, but prevention. This is a totally preventable incident. Not many things in sports medicine are a hundred percent preventable. It is also critical to have a plan in the event of an incident.

I think there’s a difference in care for recreation sports and scholastic sports [versus] collegiate sports and professional sport, because collegiate and professional sports have healthcare providers and  certified athletic trainers. [In recreation sports and highschool,] we have to make sure that we don’t get these kids in trouble.

CFL:  Because the support staff isn’t there to help, you’re just relying on parents or maybe a coach that doesn’t have a ton of medical training, which makes it extra concerning. 

When you say cool someone down, what does that mean? 

RW:  We want them in a cold water immersion,  55 degrees. The water needs to be circulated. Dr. Doug Casa, [of the Korey Stringer Institute] has done some research on this and he looked at various methods that cool you down; misting fans, cold towels. But none of these [treatments] are effective. The only true gold standard for cooling a person is getting them in a tub. And what’s really sad is when these people have had exertional heat strokes and there’s been a tub right beside them and they didn’t utilize it. So I teach people recognition, assessment, and treatment with rapid cooling, because that’s what’s going to save lives.

CFL: What do you recommend for a parent or a coach who doesn’t have access to something like a cold water tub? 

MM:  Can you imagine my thoughts when the first time I started looking at cold water tubs to donate to programs and I saw 150 gallon cold water tub for $139. So can you imagine what my thought process was? Would Jordan still be here if this piece of safety equipment was there. As parents, one of the main things you have to know is the value of the safety equipment. You can’t have a cold water tub on the field and not utilize it. People don’t understand the value of [a tub] so preventive education is key. 

[Also,] if your child tells you that they don’t feel well, don’t take this for granted. I would rather run on the field a hundred times, just in regards to the safety of a child, as opposed to something [bad] happening.

Our main goal really is to educate parents and coaches. I can’t emphasize that enough because that’s where it starts. If I have been more educated, I could have educated Jordan more to protect himself and notice signs and symptoms, or just overall, if he didn’t feel comfortable doing something that a coach asked him to do, don’t do it. I think that starts at home more than anywhere else.


How to prevent heat illness

  1. Recognize the symptoms of Heat Stroke:
  • Mental status change [that can manifest as confusion or aggression]
  • Core temperature over 104
  1. Quick treatment is essential 
  2. It can happen at any age – high school kids are currently suffering the most deaths
  3. Have supplies on the field to immediately start the cool down process (parents bring ice, cold water tub)
  4. If your child doesn’t feel well listen to them

More Information

Listen to the full interview on Keeping Student Athletes Safe During the Heat.

The Jordan McNair Foundation offers resources and events to help spread the word on the dangers of heat on student athletes. Find resources for parents and coaches including a guide to increasing safety while playing sports in the hot weather.

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