Prior history made Bechler susceptible to heatstroke

Expert says acclimation also a factor in death

February 20, 2003|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

A history of heat-related illness by Steve Bechler - disclosed this week by his parents - made the Orioles pitching prospect a prime candidate for the heatstroke that killed him, according to a leading researcher.

W. Larry Kenney said studies - many conducted by the Israeli military - show a pattern of heat illness in the same patient.

Some experts theorize that people are genetically predisposed to be sensitive to heat, but others believe the first incident may impair a person's ability to withstand it, said Kenney, president-elect of the American College of Sports Medicine.

"We don't really understand why prior cases of heatstroke predispose someone to another case," said Kenney, a physiologist with Penn State University.

Bechler's mother, Pat Bechler, said he had past trouble in hot conditions, including "a couple of heatstrokes" in high school.

That, and the fact that Bechler was coming from a cooler climate to Florida's heat, should have been a red flag, Kenney said.

"The No. 1 and No. 2 predictors are a prior history and a lack of heat acclimation," Kenney said.

Bechler, 23, an Oregon native, arrived at the Orioles' Fort Lauderdale, Fla., camp on Feb. 12. He passed a physical Thursday and labored to complete a run at the end of a three-hour workout on Friday. He struggled through drills on Saturday and was rushed to a hospital during a three-hour workout on Sunday.

He died the next morning.

The temperature Sunday reached 81 degrees, with 70 percent humidity, as pitchers and catchers went through the workout. The session was divided into 12-minute stations with water breaks between.

"If people are not acclimated, as many as one in four are likely to have some adverse reaction," Kenney said. Even with acclimation - a process of gradually increasing exertion over several days - about 2 percent suffer heat-related illness, he said.

"During the first couple of days in a hot climate we actually expand our blood volume. This takes the strain off of the heart and permits sweating to begin," Kenney said.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said he eases the players into camp, because of the heat.

The Broward County medical examiner said Bechler was apparently taking a weight-loss supplement containing ephedrine and had no food in his system. The player reported for camp overweight.

Ephedrine speeds up the heart and stresses the system in a way that interferes with the body's thermo-regulation, Kenney said. "It does all the wrong things," he said.

Not eating also diminishes someone's ability to cool down and can lead to dehydration. Food provides much of our fluid needs, he said.

"If you are just drinking water, you will lose much of that liquid to urination," he said. "This appears to be a case of piling on risk factors."

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