Dayton death raises concern But heart ailments rare among athletes

February 09, 1996|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,SUN STAFF

A little more than a month after the death of UMBC basketball player Matt Skalsky, Chris Daniels, the starting center for the University of Dayton basketball team, died yesterday morning of an apparent heart ailment.

Although several basketball players have died from heart problems in recent years, medical experts insist that sudden death among athletes remains a rare occurrence.

"There is not an epidemic, even among athletes," said Dr. Stephen Gottlieb, an associate professor and the director of heart failure service for the University of Maryland Medical System. "We have three or four different athletes who've had different diseases. With all the athletes around, I can't say it's an epidemic."

Skalsky, a 19-year-old UMBC sophomore, died of irregular beating of an enlarged heart after collapsing at a New Year's Eve party. Skalsky's death, according to autopsy reports, was similar to those of Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers, who collapsed during a game in 1990, and Reggie Lewis, a Boston Celtics star from East Baltimore, who died in July 1993 while shooting baskets.

The latest fallen basketball star is Daniels, 22, a fifth-year senior who was averaging 12.9 points and six rebounds a game and was second in the nation in field-goal percentage (67.9 percent). The Columbus, Ohio, native was pronounced dead at 5:31 a.m. at Miami Valley Hospital. Daniels was having convulsions at about 4 a.m. at his off-campus home and was rushed to the hospital about an hour later.

The Montgomery County (Ohio) coroner's office has not determined an official cause of death, but preliminary tests indicated no sign of drugs or alcohol.

"Our preliminary opinion is that his death appears to be heart-related, but we will not know until additional toxicology and histology testing is completed in about two weeks," coroner's office director Ken Betz said.

"He did have an enlarged heart, but he had a large body to support that heart," Betz said. "We don't know if there was an arrhythmia or an irregular heartbeat."

Daniels could have died of one of several fatal heart ailments. According to the American Heart Association, 250,000 heart disease deaths each year are sudden and unexpected.

The most common cause of sudden death among athletes is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, a genetic disease that causes the thickening of the heart walls, according to Barry Maron, the cardiovascular research director at the Minneapolis Health Institute Foundation.

But Maron said HCM is extremely rare. A survey of 1 million Minnesota high school athletes over a 10-year period revealed only three, or 1 in 300,000, died of HCM.

"It's uncommon," said Maron, an expert on sudden death. "I think the perception is that it's common."

Other rare causes of sudden death include: myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart sometimes caused by infection that may have afflicted Skalsky, Lewis and Gathers; Marfan syndrome, an inherited connective tissue disorder that killed volleyball star Flo Hyman and Maryland basketball players Chris Patton and Owen Brown; and other congenital vessel blood defects, one of which may have killed basketball legend Pete Maravich.

There also is the danger of cocaine use, which killed Maryland star Len Bias in 1986 and may have contributed to Lewis' death. Daniels' coach at Dayton, Oliver Purnell, was an assistant coach at Maryland when Bias died.

These tragedies have led to instances of caution when players collapse. Last month, UMass star Marcus Camby underwent four days of extensive tests after losing consciousness 10 minutes before a game, but doctors found no cardiac problems.

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