In line with a new NCAA requirement sent to universities on April 13, Yale has begun testing athletes for sickle cell trait, a blood condition that can cause sudden death during strenuous activity.
According to an e-mail sent on April 15 to all Yale athletes by Amy Backus, Yale’s senior associate director of compliance, the Athletics Department is requiring athletes either to get a free sickle cell trait test, a simple blood test at University Health Services, or to show proof of testing before they will be allowed to begin fall practice.
Sickle cell trait was not previously considered serious enough to mandate testing because it normally has no symptoms, according to James Perlotto ’78, Yale’s chief of student and athletic medicine. But in situations involving high physical stress, sickle cell trait causes red blood cells to assume an irregular quarter-moon shape, which obstructs blood flow to the heart, brain and muscles, Perlotto said.
The new NCAA legislation was initially proposed by Rice University after one of its football players, Dale Lloyd II, died suddenly during an afternoon practice in September 2006 and was found to have the trait.
“There were a couple of students [across the country] who passed away as a result of conditioning and preparation for the start of their sport seasons,” Director of Athletics Tom Beckett said. “The coaches and the trainers and the medical teams of those institutions were not aware that these young people may have had sickle cell trait.”
In the past 10 years, 21 college football players have collapsed and died suddenly during practice or competition, and eight of them were found to have had sickle cell trait. Perlotto said the other cases of sudden death are thought to have been caused by cardiac problems, heat stroke or drug use. Yale athletes already undergo heart and lung exams each year, Perlotto said.
Before the mandate, Yale athletes were only tested for sickle cell disease, which is different from sickle cell trait in that blood flow is always obstructed.
“Yale Athletic Medicine hopes to address and improve care for all of our athletes and potentially help to avoid the tragedy of an athlete becoming suddenly ill or even dying in the course of participating in sports,” Perlotto wrote in an e-mail.
With the NCAA’s new legislation, Beckett said that after testing, students with the trait will be identified and given proper treatment. Backus said the Athletic Department is in the process of working with the medical staff to determine exactly how the University will support athletes who test positive for the trait. According to an NCAA brochure about sickle cell trait that was sent to the University, most deaths involving athletes with the trait occur during conditioning and not during games or other practice situations.
Perlotto said athletes who test positive will still be able to participate fully in their sport but will have to take caution in high heat or when dehydrated, as well as taking on modified training and practice routines in order to ensure their safety.