The grueling summer heat wave is taking a toll on people, crops and livestock as it blankets the center of the country, and perhaps nobody is exposed to the ravaging heat more than student athletes training for the fall season, practicing hours a day in triple digit temperatures.
Already in Georgia, where temperatures have lingered in the mid- to upper-90s for weeks, two football players died this week from excessive heat exposure, including 16-year old Forrest Jones. He collapsed moments after practice and hit his head.
The dangers of student athletes training in extreme heat create tragedies like this every year.
Years ago, training in heat was a tradition hard-nosed coaches used to "toughen up" players. The ordeal of the "Junction Boys" is legendary, when Texas A&M University football coach arranged a 10-day camp at a nearby town, Junction, in the middle of the 1950s epic heat wave and drought that would last for 4 years. The oppressive heat and the brutal practice conditions led many players to drop out of the football program, leaving only a fraction of "survivors."
Modern coaches have become more aware of heat threats, meaning it's unlikely we'll see any more "Junction Boys." But the threat of heat strokes remains.
Already this year there has been a dozen heat-related deaths in Dallas alone, and student athletes are often a great risk for heat-related illnesses.
"The youngsters and the elderly are the two populations most affected by the heat," said Dr. Wally Ghurabi, the medical director of the UCLA Emergency Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
"In the case of the youngsters, their systems are not as well developed, and the mechanism that the body uses to lower the temperature is hindered by the environmental factors such as the extreme heat, humidity and exercise."
The first level of heat-related illness is heat cramps, during which muscles begin cramping. Next on the continuum would be heat exhaustion, in which the athlete begins to feel fatigued, dizzy and nauseous with potential vomiting. Finally, the mother of all heat related illnesses is heat stroke, in which a person becomes unconscious or delirious and has seizures.
"At this point, the core body temperature is above 106 degrees," said Dr. Ghurabi. "The temperature lowering medication will not work anymore because the thalamus, the part of the brain that controls the body temperature, is malfunctioning."
The normal core body temperature is 98.6 degrees.
With a month of triple digit temperatures forecast in many areas, Rebecca Stearns, the Director of Education for the Korey Stringer Institute, offers advice for student athletes, coaches and parents to keep players safe.
The institute, founded in memory of Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer, who died from exertional heat stroke in 2001 is dedicated to preventing heat-related illnesses through communication prevention and treatment techniques.
Tips for avoiding heat-related incidents:
Ensure athletes have extra rest breaks and longer breaks.
Ensure athletes are acclimatized to the heat. "When the environment is different from what you are used to exercising in, that is when you have to be careful," said Stearns. Extra caution is especially important during the first 3 to 5 days of practice in the heat or preseason, when most incidents will occur.
Reduce the intensity of exercise until your body is used to the heat.
Arrive at each practice hydrated, and drink when you can.
Educate coaches and athletes about heat-related illness and proper hydration.
Reduce the amount of equipment and clothing worn by the athlete.
Back off on your intensity if you can.
Have practice in the coolest part of the day.
Speak up if you do not feel well. If you feel that your body is trying to tell you something, let someone know immediately. If a player or another athlete is struggling more than usual, don't be afraid to say something to ask them.
For more information on heat-acclimatization guidelines for student athletes, refer to NATA (National Athletic Trainers' Association) consensus statement.