A dangerous hit

By Bushra Majid
Fri, 05, 19

The story begins with the name Omalu. Now you must be wondering what Omalu must have done to deserve a mention in my article.......


The story begins with the name Omalu. Now you must be wondering what Omalu must have done to deserve a mention in my article. Well, Omalu is actually Dr Bennet Omalu who hailed from Nigeria, and from where he migrated to the land of opportunities, America. Dr Omalu is a forensic pathologist, meaning his job is to dissect the dead bodies and try to find the cause of their death. Omalu is a man of his own principles. At times, his colleagues found it odd the way he dealt with the dead bodies; before starting the procedure, he would ask for dead person’s permission to proceed as if it could say anything at all. It was his way of doing it and he felt contented by treating the dead with utmost respect. As a foreigner, Omalu had to face many difficulties while trying to make his place in a new country and gaining expertise that demanded loads of hard work and exceptional dedication.

His life took a turn when he got the body of a former National Football League (NFL) player, who had suffered from cognitional impairment and behavioural disturbances. On autopsy, what he discovered would not only surprise him, but more especially the authorities who would go into a state of denial to save the most popular game of the nation, football. When Omalu looked at the slices of Mike Webster’s brain under the microscope, he found aggregates of abnormal protein which he thought might have been the reason for his symptoms preceding his death. Surprised by his finding, he decided to publish a paper describing the case of Webster as a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), only with the purpose of creating awareness of the impact the blows to the head can have on cognition and overall quality of life, the worst being suicides. Faced with many oppositions and threats, he was asked by the NFL to retract his work, fearing it would have a damaging effect on their sport. Omalu, meanwhile, continued to uncover similar findings in footballers, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, Andre Waters and Tom McHale, who died before seeing their 50th birthday.

It was not until recently in 2016 did the NFL publicly accept the link between football and CTE. It was Omalu’s persistence and determination that finally gave him success and honour. But Omalu was never trying to defame the sport itself. In fact, he knew little about it during time he had been working on the autopsies of these football players and hearing the events preceding the deaths of these players from their families. He had only one intention: to find out what was causing these horrible deaths of people that were once celebrated as heroes for their spectacular game. His struggle inspired the creation of the movie “Concussion” starring Will Smith as Dr Omalu.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a condition that occurs when there have been blows to the head repeatedly for some time that leads to pathological changes in the brain that can, over the course of time, lead to changes in behaviour, memory, personality, cognition and even cause death. Initially, it was observed in people involved in contact sports but later, studies have shown the occurrence of CTE in veterans subjected to bomb blasts. The most recent studies regarding traumatic encephalopathy are now showing that multiple hits to the head are not a prerequisite for the development of the earlier mentioned deficits. Even a single blow is enough to incite pathological changes in the brain as early as the onset of a blow to the head.

The movie Concussion inspired me so much that I did research on Omalu and his work and was surprised to know how much we, ourselves, can be prone to it. Traffic accidents have become one of the leading causes of injuries in young adults. Many people slip off their bikes on a daily basis, get a little bruise or a headache and are up and about the next day. Domestic violence, on the other hand, can also be a cause of traumatic encephalopathy, later in life. Over the last several years, we have witnessed several bomb blasts in public places and I am sure that there are a lot of survivors out there. The reason for writing this article is to create awareness among people that blows to the head are not self-limiting. In times where cure has not been discovered yet, prevention seems the best option. For instance, both the rider and passenger should wear helmets whenever on bike. People going on bikes should follow their designated lane and not try to change it every other second as we frequently see every day. Similarly, car drivers should not drive in the lanes for bikers and front seaters should always wear seat belts.

Also we need to avoid hitting each other on the head even if it’s a joke. We need to create a surveillance system where people at high risk can be screened for development of some signs and symptoms of traumatic encephalopathy. Omalu’s research has elaborated that Webster or Long did not become mentally handicapped on their own; it was the traumas that they had suffered a long time before, that turned them into something they themselves couldn’t comprehend.

We cannot stop people from playing. That would not be possible. Neither can we stop ourselves from travelling on bikes. What we can do is make everyone aware of the consequences of traumatic injuries to the head.

Always seek help if you find yourself not feeling all right if you had a trauma to your head, even if it had been a long time before. Please remember that no blow to the head is safe.