Kind of a cool moment (well, as cool a moment as can be had during a hearing about a homicide) yesterday.
One of the experts who testified at the hearing was Bennet Omalu, whose name sounded really, really familiar. As he was talking about the autopsy of the man who died during an October shooting at a Tracy restaurant, I kept trying to figure out why I recognized him. I wasn’t sure if I’ve written about him or something, but it bugged me.
When the hearing broke for lunch, I heard one of the attorneys talking about Dr. Omalu as the guy who is studying concussions in deceased NFL players.
I read about him a few months ago in GQ… that’s why his name sounded familiar! He’s been fighting with the NFL about the devastating effects on players who suffered concussions during their playing days. He’s now the chief pathologist with the San Joaquin County Coroner’s Office.
One day he started on a new set of slides, prepared for him by a lab at the University of Pittsburgh where he had ordered specialized staining. He was ordering so many slides, he had to start paying for this out of his own pocket. He put the first slide from the new set under his microscope and looked in.
“What is this?” he said out loud. “Geez. Gee! What is this?”
Brown and red splotches. All over the place. Large accumulations of tau proteins. Tau was kind of like sludge, clogging up the works, killing cells in regions responsible for mood, emotions, and executive functioning.
This was why Mike Webster was crazy.
Omalu showed the slides to Wecht and to scientists at the University of Pittsburgh. Everyone agreed: This was a disease, or a form of it, that no one had ever seen before. Omalu wondered what to call it. He wanted a good acronym. Eventually, he came up with CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He wrote a paper detailing his findings. He titled it “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player” and put it in an envelope and sent it to the prestigious peer-reviewed journalNeurosurgery. He thought NFL doctors would be pleased when they read it. He really did. He thought they would welcome a finding as important as this: scientific evidence that the kind of repeated blows to the head sustained in football could cause severe, debilitating brain damage. He thought they could use his research to try and fix the problem.
I really recommend reading the story… it’s incredible and very well-written.