Douglas death puts focus on student athlete safety

The death of a Douglas County High School student who was hospitalized after a football practice has educators and athletic officials exploring additional safety measures for student athletes.

While the rare phenomenon of student athletes’ sudden deaths is not new, the case of 17-year-old Zyrees Oliver has started a new conversation. Until now, officials worried about the youths not getting enough liquids. Family members of Oliver, a Douglas County student, think he might have drunk too much water and other fluids after practice Aug. 5.

The cause of his death has not been officially determined, but the family reported he drank two gallons of water and two gallons of Gatorade before he collapsed.Oliver died early Monday after being removed from a ventilator.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has completed an autopsy, but it is waiting on additional lab results to determine the cause of death. Those results may take at least two weeks, said GBI spokeswoman Sherry Lang.

A family member reached Wednesday did not want to comment on the student’s death and referred The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to an attorney from the law firm Morgan & Morgan. The attorney did not return a telephone call for comment.

While Oliver’s principal and other officials are cautious in concluding his death was caused by overhydrating, “It’s certainly something that everybody needs to be aware of,” said Douglas County High principal Tim Scott.

Mike Emery, athletics director in Gwinnett County, which had 14,699 student athletes last school year, said the district would have discussions with coaches and other officials at their next training session on Sept. 6 about the dangers of overhydrating.

“If anything good can come out of this it’s a discussion about the overconsumption of fluids,” Emery said.

Oliver may have suffered from hypervolemic hyponatremia, which is depleted sodium levels in the blood caused by fluid overload, said Robert Huggins, director of elite athlete health and performance at the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut. Sodium depletion affects the body’s electrolytes and can lead to dangerous health problems including seizures and brain damage.

Overhydrating is among the top 10 causes of sudden death among athletes, Huggins said. The Stringer Institute is named after a former NFL player who died in 2001 from heat stroke. Overhydrating occurs more typically with marathon runners and triathletes when they are drinking at every rest stop, not football players.

The Georgia High School Association has set guidelines for coaches to restrict activities when the temperature is 82 degrees or hotter. The guidelines prescribe at least three rest breaks per hour, for example, and limit the equipment players can wear when temperatures reach toward the 90s.

Association executive director Gary Phillips said his group will also take a look into Oliver’s death to determine if anything in this case should lead to additional safety measures.

Oliver had medical issues in recent months, including cramping, dehydration and migraines, his family said in prior interviews. But Scott, the Douglas County High principal, said Tuesday that Oliver was “absolutely” cleared to practice and play.

Some school districts, such as Gwinnett, have trainers at every high school who assist coaches and guide students’ conditioning.

A recent survey of all 18,000 high schools nationwide found about 70 percent of high schools have access to athletic trainers, Huggins said. Thirty-seven percent of schools have a full-time trainer; 31 percent have a part-time trainer, he said. In Georgia, Huggins said 79 percent of the high schools that responded to the survey said they have access to a trainer. Smith said his school has a trainer, but he’s unsure if the trainer attends all practices.

Phillips said his organization has had discussions with state lawmakers in recent years about having trainers in all Georgia high schools. The problem, he said, is trainers are funded by school districts and some rural districts cannot afford it.

“How do you pay for it?,” he said.

Oliver had a 3.8 grade point average and dreamed of playing college football. His family is trying to raise money to return him to his home state of New Jersey for burial. A fundraising page has been started on the social media site GoFundMe. Oliver’s classmates are raising money at school.

“He was an excellent student and a great young man,” Scott said.

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