In retrospect, his honesty might have been one of the best decisions of his life. One day after being traded from the Detroit Lions to the Philadelphia Eagles, running back Jerome Harrison mentioned to Eagles team physician Dr. Gary Dorshimer that he had been having headaches. An MRI soon revealed a brain tumor. The teams rescinded the trade, and two days later Harrison underwent surgery to remove the tumor.
Lions players told reporters after news of Harrison’s diagnosis broke that the running back had been complaining of headaches. He wore sunglasses on the sidelines and had a visor placed into his helmet. Cornerback Chris Houston told the Detroit Free Press, “Everybody thought it was just a regular headache. It was much more than that.”
In fact, it turned out to be an ependymoma in the fourth ventricle of his brain, according to ESPN.com. After the trade was voided and he was placed on the reserve/non-football illness list, Harrison underwent surgery Friday. Reportedly the surgeons believe they removed the entire tumor.
Dr. Sunil J. Patel, the chairman of the neurosurgery department at the Medical University of South Carolina, states that ependymomas, if completely resected have an excellent but guarded prognosis. There is a very good chance that a patient will have a normal life, but there is always the chance of recurrence.
While not knowing the details of Harrison’s case specifically, Dr. Patel notes an expected recovery from this type of surgery. “After removal of an ependymoma, the surgeon will follow a patient closely. If recovery goes smoothly and the patient exhibits no deficits with balance, control, and coordination, which seem necessary to play football, then he potentially could return to play in as little as 2-3 months.”
I am writing this column about Harrison not to spotlight a feel-good story, but to emphasize the importance of honest, open discussions between players and team physicians. As team doctors performing physicals or examining players after injuries, we frequently see athletes downplaying symptoms. They neglect to mention giving way in a knee or looseness in a shoulder or some other symptom for fear of not getting signed to a contract or not being cleared to play. Tweet this idea.
Dr. Thom Mayer, the NFL Players Association medical director, makes the same case to NFL players. He stressed to ESPN that players being truthful could have a life-saving result.
Patel agrees that it seems fortunate for Harrison that the diagnosis was made. “It could have occluded a ventricle or spread to the spinal canal. Ependymomas can be deadly.”
I would strongly caution readers against the kneejerk reaction of calling for mandatory brain MRI’s. Screening MRI’s for not only the 1696 players currently on NFL rosters but also all of the players on practice squads, injured reserve, or those who attended training camps and the NFL combine only to be cut later would be challenging to say the least. Likely it could take many seasons of testing this many players to find such a tumor.
Even Lions linebacker Bobby Carpenter questions such a requirement. “It’s just kind of the cost benefit, how many (tumors like Harrison’s) are you going to pick up? What is there, like 1600 players, and you may pick that up once a decade – almost 15,000 MRI’s on someone’s head to find something.”
I believe it would be more effective to use secondary tests like MRI’s when an athlete is having symptoms. Patel reiterates that point. “It doesn’t seem feasible to obtain MRI’s for all players. And if a player has a headache one time? No. But if the headaches continue or they are severe headaches with exertion, then an MRI is essential.” But then we are back to relying on players telling their doctors that something is wrong.
Jerome Harrison chose to tell his prospective team and its doctors about his headache, and it likely saved his life.
Note: The following post appears in a column in the October 26, 2011 edition of The Post and Courier.