Autopsy: UMBC's Skalsky died from enlarged heart Similar arrhythmias killed Gathers, Lewis

January 24, 1996|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Roch Eric Kubatko contributed to this article.

An autopsy report released yesterday shows that UMBC basketball player Matt Skalsky died from the irregular beating of an enlarged heart -- a finding that recalls the sudden deaths of other basketball players in recent years.

Skalsky, 19, died of sudden cardiac arrhythmia associated with heart tissue scarring and the type of heart enlargement seen in well-conditioned athletes who suddenly die, the autopsy report states. Medical examiners ruled Skalsky died of natural causes after collapsing at a New Year's Eve party.

Dr. John E. Smialek, the state's chief medical examiner, said Skalsky's death was similar to that of Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount star who collapsed during a game in 1990. Reggie Lewis, an NBA star from Baltimore, also died from a cardiac arrhythmia, in July 1993.

"Why it happens, it's hard to know," Smialek said. "There are theories about how their heart muscles become so overdeveloped it may make them vulnerable to interruptions in electrical impulses."

Sgt. Wayne Jerman, a Montgomery County police spokesman, said the investigation into Skalsky's death remains open. "We're waiting on a couple of things," he said, refusing to elaborate.

Skalsky, a computer studies major from East Lansing, Mich., died early on New Year's Day. A police report shows the sophomore was attending a party at a house in Darnestown in Montgomery County when he became involved in an altercation and either fell or was pushed to the ground, striking his head. He was then taken inside the house, where some at the party at tempted to revive him with CPR.

Emergency medical workers took him to a Rockville hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Medical examiners determined that a small scrape on Skalsky's forehead probably occurred when he fell upon losing consciousness, and did not cause his death.

Tests showed Skalsky had a blood-alcohol level of .08, the legal standard for impairment, but no illicit drugs were detected, according to the autopsy report.

Chuck Skalsky, the player's father, wondered yesterday why his son's heart condition would flare up during a rare time away from the stresses of playing basketball.

"They had a day and a half off from practice," said Skalsky, 43, a terminal manager for a trucking company. "He was probably the most relaxed he'd ever been since he got to school."

Skalsky said there had been no indication that his son had heart problems. He noted one unusual event in the teen-ager's medical background: At age 4, he lost consciousness when he was accidentally hanged on the rope to a garage door. But the father said coroners were told of the incident, and it apparently had nothing to do with his son's recent death.

At UMBC yesterday, officials defended their medical screening procedures, and said the teen-ager showed no sign of serious medical problems.

"Other than orthopedic problems, which you find in any athlete, Matt didn't really have anything," said Cindy Kubiet, UMBC's director of sports medicine.

Tom Sullivan, the school's basketball coach, said the unfortunate truth is that there may be no real lesson to be learned from the autopsy results.

"It's not something that's avoidable or preventable," he said. "It's a situation that is going to occur in some sort of random pattern through youngsters who participate in sports. I just feel unfortunate it had to be Matt."

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