Save the Linebacker

When a young athlete arrives in the ER dangerously short of breath, a surgeon must improvise to save his life.



Early in my career, I was the resident on call one night in the cardiothoracic intensive care unit when an emergency room doctor called and asked me to come down and see a patient. “Young guy,” he said. “He has some sort of an airway problem.”

Those were worrisome words, because airway problems can be immediately life-threatening. I rushed to the patient’s examining room, where two men were supporting a third, younger man. One of the two supporting him was grasping his upper arm so tightly that his own arms were visibly shaking. He looked very scared.

“I’m Steve’s dad, doc.” He looked at the man on the other side of the patient. “And this is Coach Alexander.”

“Hey, doc,” grunted the coach. “Somethin’ ain’t right here. This is one tough kid.”

I walked around to the other side of the bed so I could see the patient. Steve was about 20. His forearms, biceps, and triceps, under stress as he leaned forward on the bed, were well developed and defined. His hands were large, with abrasions on his knuckles. He was wearing a white and blue athletic shirt and a matching cap with the logo of a local college. He was sweating, despite the fact that it was cool in the ER. He was extremely short of breath, and his shoulder and upper-back muscles, evidently called into play to supplement the usual ones, were heaving in concert with the movements of his chest.

“Steve, what’s up?” I asked.

He replied without looking up at me, gasping between words. “I felt a little…weird…the last couple of days…and then got…a cold or something…really…hard to breathe…now.”

“What happened to your knuckles?” I asked.

He looked up, managing a crooked grin on his red, sweaty face, and replied, “Linebacker.”

At that moment, the emergency room resident walked in. “We have the CT scan,” he said.


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