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10/Hank Gathers Sudden Cardiac Deaths and Universal Screening March 4, 1990 It was a dunk that college basketball fans had seen so many times before. Hank Gathers received the alley-oop pass from teammate Terrell Lowery and delivered his signature tomahawk dunk. The best player on the nation’s highest scoring team then did exactly what he always did. He gave a high five to a teammate and then started playing defense. There was 13:34 left in the first half when Gathers fell to the court. Moments later, officials canceled the game. Hours later, Hank Gathers passed away. Gathers was not a college basketball superstar in the traditional sense. His close friend and high school and college teammate Bo Kimble recalled that Gathers rarely played on their junior varsity or freshman teams. “He worked twice as hard as most players,” Kimble said. “Nothing came easy to him.”1 After one year of college basketball at the University of Southern California, the six-foot-seven forward from North Philadelphia transferred with Kimble to the much smaller Loyola Marymount. Under head coach Paul Westhead’s fast-paced style of play, Gathers flourished. As a junior, Gathers led all of college basketball in scoring and rebounding. He became only one of two players in history who have accomplished that feat. Many scouts believed he would be selected as an NBA lottery pick after his senior season. Despite the sudden nature of his death a few months later, signs of a problem began to appear early in that senior season. On December 9, 1989, Loyola Marymount played a regular-season game against UC Santa Barbara. After a routine drive down the lane and foul by a defender, Gathers stepped to the free-throw line. Seconds later, he collapsed. Gathers’s mother later recalled how she was woken from sleep and told of her son’s collapse. “I thought they were kidding,” she said, “because he always had trouble at the foul line.”2 It turns out Gathers had a much more serious problem than free throws. His Hank Gathers / 167 heart was racing before he fell. With medical assistance, he rose to his feet and walked off the floor. Dr. Michael F. Mellman, an internal medicine physician at Centinela Hospital Medical Center, treated him after that December collapse and referred him to cardiologists for treatment of an arrhythmia, or abnormal heart rhythm. Dr. Vernon Hattori and Dr. Charles Swedlow reportedly cleared Gathers to return to basketball and monitored his condition. According to a statement from the Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital, Gathers had been diagnosed with the arrhythmia and placed on an anti-arrhythmic medication to treat it. The statement added that Gathers was regularly monitored following the incident.3 As his coach, Westhead worried about Gathers returning to play. “I had fears and concerns about him coming back. But we were on top of the situation.” He noted that electrocardiograms were performed several times per week. In the opinion of team athletic trainer Robert Schaefer, “He was given the best workups that could be had. No stone was left unturned.”4 The doctors treated Gathers’s arrhythmia with propranolol. This beta-blocker is a common heart medication that blocks stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system that increases heart rate. Gathers returned to the court after only missing two games, but his medication ’s side effects proved to be a formidable opponent. He complained frequently of feeling tired. He could not run or play at his desired level. He asked doctors and his coaches about the medication. He pleaded to be allowed to stop taking the medication or cut back on the dose. The autopsy performed shortly after the fateful event of March 4 showed no signs of propranolol in Gathers’s system. Presumably he had not taken his medication for at least eight hours before his death.5 March 4 should have been just like any other night. Loyola Marymount was playing in a semifinal game of the West Coast Conference tournament, where they were heavy favorites over upstart Portland. Gathers warmed up for that game as for every game before it, jogging and then sprinting around the court three times. The team opened the game as it often did, amassing a quick 12-point lead in the game’s first eight minutes. At 5:14 p.m., everything changed. Gathers’s crumpling body hit the court so hard that fans throughout Gersten Pavilion could hear the impact. Portland’s Josh Lowery...


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