A Preventable Death?

Article

One of the best college basketball players in the United States dropped dead on the basketball court during a game. His name was Hank Gathers and he was a big, strong center for the team from a small Catholic school in California.

One of the best college basketball players in the United States dropped dead on the basketball court during a game. His name was Hank Gathers and he was a big, strong center for the team from a small Catholic school in California. Loyola Marymount. Hank had become a national celebrity. He played hard and had enormous energy. As they would say on Sports Center: “Hank Gathers dominated the middle.” Hank had unlimited potential as a professional in the NBA. He was also young, black and a male. That dangerous blood pressure group.

Hank Gathers was prescribed Tenormin (atenolol) to control his blood pressure. According to a medical myth that quickly spread, this kid quit taking the medication because he felt “weak.” He just didn’t seem to have the same spring in his legs. Loyola Marymount was coached by Paul Westhead. The game was run and gun. They averaged 122 points a game. This was not the style of game for a big guy with his exercise tolerance compromised by a beta blocker. He just could not run. He quit the drug and died after a monster slam dunk, during a WCC conference tournament game 18 years ago today.

Who dropped the ball and has at least collateral responsibility for this kid’s death. How about the prescribing physician?

Didn’t he know? Couldn’t he see the real probability that this amazing basketball player’s energy would tank and that he could be non-compliant?

Whose job was it to take Hank Gathers by the collar, look him in the eye and demand that he get it?

“Hank, you have to take this medicine. You cannot stop it. You are young and I know that you think you are invincible, but your blood pressure is so high that you could end up like JR Richard of the Astros.”

“Who is JR Richard?”

“He was a Cy Young Award candidate. A terrific pitcher for the Houston Astros. Young, black and male and he fell over in center field at the Astrodome running wind sprints. A stroke. He never came back.”

“I’ll be okay, doctor. I will be okay.”

Mandatory pharmacist counseling on every new prescription was absolutely not the practice in California in 1990. Congress had just passed the OBRA law in 1989. I’d guess that something like this went on when Hank got his Tenormin. Star struck, the pharmacist turns to the pharmacy clerk and gushes, “That was Hank Gathers, the Loyola basketball star. I shoulda got his autograph.” In 1990, I’d put money on it that the pharmacist did not have thought one about Hank’s exercise tolerance.

The 21st Century? Eighteen years later. The focus is entirely different. Pharmacists have very good eyes these days. They know that it is their job to give personal counseling. Most conscientious pharmacists would see Hank on the court, sucking air trying to play Paul Westhead’s game. A pharmacist in 2008 would likely call the prescriber and suggest a drug more suited to a world class athlete, like losartan.

In 1990, Hank Gathers' entire medical team dropped the ball.

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