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Why are 13 Iowa football players hospitalized? No firm answers

[ 65 ] January 26, 2011 |

From left: Biff Poggi, Paul Federici and John Stokes are pictured during Wednesday's press conference in Iowa City. (Rodney White/Des Moines Register photo)

Iowa City, Ia. — Thirteen unidentified Iowa football players remain hospitalized with a muscle injury syndrome likely triggered by heavy workouts over the past week, university officials said Wednesday at a news conference.

Dr. John Stokes, who is not directly involved with the treatment of the athletes, said the condition, called rhabdomyolysis, is fairly common among football players and that it is typically not career-threatening.

Stokes said, however, that he had never seen as many cases at one time in his 32 years practicing internal medicine at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics.

“It does appear to be a little unusual, but apparently the common denominator for each of these individuals had to do with the fact that they were undergoing a workout, a heavy exercise program,” said Stokes, during a gathering at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Two of the hospitalized players — defensive players Shane DiBona of Duxbury, Mass., and Jordan Bernstine of Des Moines — indicated through social media that workouts were extreme.

DiBona outlined a weight-lifting drill with a post on Facebook: “I had to squat 240 pounds 100 times and it was timed. I can’t walk and I fell down the stairs.”

Bernstine also wrote about the Jan. 20 workout: “Hands Down the hardest workout I’ve ever had in my life!”

In searching for a link among the players Wednesday, Dr. Stokes said he’d focus on “were they ill with some other problem? Did they have a viral illness, or as I mentioned before, diarrhea or something like that?”

Stokes said that in addition to a previous illness, dehydration, a genetic predisposition to the disorder or the taking of certain dietary supplements can compound the problem.

So far, officials said, no common cause for the malady has been pinpointed.

‘Pretty ambitious’ workout

Paul Federici, Iowa’s director of football operations, said the team embarked on “an important and pretty ambitious part of the offseason workout” Jan. 20. That followed three weeks of inactivity after Iowa’s 27-24 victory over Missouri in the Insight Bowl.

Federici, who was previously director of Iowa’s athletic training services for five years, said players were working out in groups ranging from 15-35 based on their class schedules.

The 13 players hospitalized were part of different workout groups, and cover a range of positions and experience levels, he said.

Federici, who admitted he wasn’t present during workouts and had no direct knowledge of the drills, confirmed he knew of no single player dealing with the condition rhabdomyolysis in his time with the Hawkeyes.

Iowa officials who did have direct knowledge of workouts were not made available to the media. Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz is out of town recruiting, reporters were told.

Hawkeye athletic director Gary Barta has not responded to requests seeking comment.

Answers difficult to find

Jane Meyer, Iowa’s senior associate athletic director, said the university is not identifying players in order to comply with the federal Health Information Portability and Accountability Act — more commonly known as HIPAA.

Meyer also cited that as the reason for bringing a pair of speakers with no direct information about the rhabdomyolysis outbreak to the news conference, so that they could speak in general terms without addressing specific athletes.

Federici said that though he did not know exactly details of the workouts prior to these hospital stays, they were similar to what Iowa has done in the past.

He said five members of the team’s training staff were present during all workouts, and that beverages were readily available for players to stay hydrated between sessions.

Meyer said she had not seen a copy of the workout regimen, didn’t know whether one existed, and had not requested to see one. She has oversight of the training staff, and said it was premature to speculate whether anyone could be disciplined as a result of the medical situation.

Causes for concern

Biff Poggi, whose son Jim is a freshman linebacker and one of those hospitalized, said his son told him Thursday night that he was extremely sore after his initial lower-body workout. He went through an upper-body workout Friday, then players got the weekend off.

But Jim Poggi was still experiencing soreness, particularly in his quadriceps, he told his father, and it got worse over the weekend. He tried to ease the pain with stretching exercises and visits to the steam room.

After Monday’s workout, which again focused on the lower body, Jim’s “urine became discolored, and that’s when they sent him to the hospital,” Biff Poggi said.

Stokes said brown-, red-, or tea-colored urine is a common symptom of rhabdomyolysis, along with soreness in all of the muscle groups. The condition can affect kidney function as well, which is the biggest danger.

But Stokes said extensive kidney damage is rare in the case of young, otherwise-healthy adults. He said recovery time typically ranges from a few days to a week.

Rhabdomyolysis is common among military recruits going through boot camp, as well as in professional football players, Stokes said. He said the recovery process does not preclude a return to strenuous activity.

Federici said it was unknown if the players affected were taking a nutritional supplement, but that any such use must be cleared by a university compliance officer.

Asked if athletes may use supplements without the university’s knowledge, he said: “It’s possible, but the environment we have fostered and the message that we have reiterated time after time is that’s very risky.”

Federici said it’s too soon to say if the football program will make any changes to its workout regimen, adding: “We are always looking for a better way to do things.”

The 13 players — one more was hospitalized Wednesday — will be evaluated and released on a case-by-case basis, officials said.

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MORE ABOUT HIPAA

So, why can Iowa release injury information about its players during the season without breaching their medical privacy, but withhold such information during this rhabdomyolysis episode?

It relates to the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act — or HIPAA.

According to Jane Meyer, Iowa’s senior associate athletic director, players sign waivers for the release of such information during times of competition (although they can opt not to).
In the offseason, however, there is no such waiver — hence the silence.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Mark Emmert: Mark Emmert is the assistant sports editor for The Des Moines Register. View author profile.

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