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Doctors will look at icy pool option for high school athletes

LOUISVILLE — Physicians on a Kentucky Medical Association committee will conduct immediate research so that they can advise Kentucky High School coaches on the best way to react to heat illnesses by the time warm-weather athletic practices begin, committee chairman James Bowles said Thursday.

One option is whether coaches should make sure that they have an icy pool available to athletes — a provision that was recently cut from legislation in the General Assembly because certified trainers and physicians worried that coaches wouldn't know how to use the pools properly.

Bowles, a Madisonville physician, heads a KMA committee that advises the Kentucky High School Athletic Association on medical matters.

He said that to meet the requirements of a law signed Tuesday by Gov. Steve Beshear, members of the committee also plan to develop an online course for coaches by midsummer.

The law requires medical and safety training for coaches by the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year, as well as mandating that a trained coach be present at all practices and competitions.

The law was prompted by the heat exhaustion death last August of Max Gilpin, a 15-year-old football player at Louisville's Pleasure Ridge Park High School, who died after collapsing during a practice in 94-degree heat. His coach, David Jason Stinson, was indicted on a reckless homicide change, but maintains his innocence. It's thought to be the first time a coach has ever been criminally charged in a practice death.

The new law covers all high school coaches and all high school sports.

"We will be as vigilant as we can concerning the safety of athletes," said Bowles, whose committee makes recommendations to the KHSAA every two years.

Bowles said his committee, which met Thursday in Louisville, also discussed methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, as a health threat for high school athletes. He noted that the new law does not require coaches to be trained in how to recognize MRSA infections, but said that the committee may make recommendations about the infection.

Medical experts say that MRSA — which is resistant to some but not all antibiotics — can flourish and be transmitted in environments like those in athletic dressing rooms or workout spaces. Athletes in contact sports are thought to be at higher risk because of skin-to-skin contact and the shared use of athletic equipment.

Two Central Kentucky high school athletes — both soccer players — have died since last fall in cases attributed to MRSA infections.

Bowles said coaches now are being advised to sanitize locker rooms and use other similar methods to combat MRSA.

Even before Beshear signed the new law this week, KHSAA was requiring coaches to attend medical symposiums on medical emergencies, heat-related illness, MRSA and other medical issues for high school athletes. But in the past, coaches were not tested on their knowledge of topics covered in the symposiums.

Meanwhile, athletic directors at area high schools say they are stepping up preventive measures. But they say the job of managing high school sports is becoming tougher — and more tense — because of issues such as MRSA and heatstroke.

"It's scary," said Jenkins High School Athletics Director Mark Johnson. "You try to do your best to see that you've done everything you're supposed to do."

Gary Fritz, athletics director at Madison Central High School in Richmond, says coaches there get training in CPR and in how to use automated defibrillators, devices that can save lives in cases of cardiac arrest. The school also has the devices available at practices and games, he said.

Still, Fritz worries that today's young athletes may be more vulnerable to heat than players of a few decades ago.

"Many students today are not acclimated to doing hard work in the heat," Fritz said. "They come out of air-conditioned locker rooms to practice football, and their bodies are not acclimated to the heat the way some athletes used to be. It's a problem we all have to be aware of."