Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A huge scare in Buffalo

Above: Richard Zednik shortly before Sunday's accident.

There are a lot of inherent dangers in playing sports, especially contact sports. Depending upon the sport the injuries can range from muscle strains, pulls, and sprains to torn ligaments and tendons. I’ve seen myriad broken bones in football tackles, skiing accidents, and I’ve even seen a broken arm and a broken leg in baseball. You can get struck by lightning playing something sedate as golf, which I kinda consider more of a game and less of a sport, and of course folks have died in crashes in auto racing (again, not so much a sport as a skill). I saw a guy die from his injuries once in a boxing match, too.

Ice hockey is the sport I follow the most; in fact it’s the only sport I follow closely at all enough to carry on a reasonably intelligent conversation. Hockey is most assuredly a contact sport and the potential for injury is pretty major at times. Instead of on nice soft grass, you play on cold hard ice, balanced on top of razor blades about 1/8 of an inch wide. Yes, you play armor-clad in shoulder/elbow/shin pads, gloves, and a helmet, but injuries still happen from such things as errant sticks, flying pucks, getting slammed into the boards, player on player collisions, and occasional fisticuffs.

I’ve personally seen several puck-related injuries, from deep bruises to broken foot bones. Remember, that thing is a little over half a pound of frozen vulcanized rubber hurtling about at nearly 100 miles an hour. Additionally, I’ve seen broken noses and bloody lips from high-sticking, at least one broken leg from hitting the boards wrong, and more than a few teeth lost (what we old-school fans call “spitting out Chiclets”), all right here in Charleston at the Coliseum during Stingrays games. Just a couple weeks ago Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers missed a couple games after a knee on knee collision with Jarkko Ruutu of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Think of how that would hurt, knocking knees while skating at full-tilt.

But on Sunday, Richard Zednik of the Florida Panthers suffered an even more horrifying injury when his carotid artery was sliced open by the skate blade of his team mate Olli Jokinen in a freak accident during a game against the Buffalo Sabres. Zednik was circling the net behind the play and skating into the corner when Jokinen was upended by Sabres forward Clarke MacArthur. Jokinen fell headfirst to the ice, and his right leg and skate flew up and struck Zednik directly on the side of the neck. Doctors said the skate blade just missed cutting the jugular vein. Zednik lost five units of blood (almost a third of the body’s total volume) and required over an hour of emergency surgery to close the wound, but is currently listed in good condition as of 5:00 PM Tuesday.

It was eerily familiar to me, though, to hear about a player’s throat being slashed during a game in Buffalo. On March 22, 1989, Steve Tuttle of the St.Louis Blues collided with Buffalo’s Uwe Krupp in front of the goal net, and Tuttle’s skate caught Sabres goalie Clint Malarchuk on the neck, severing his right external jugular vein. With a huge pool of blood collecting on the ice, Malarchuk somehow left the ice under his own power with the assistance of his team's athletic trainer, Jim Pizzutelli. Many spectators were physically sickened by the sight, with nine fainting and two suffering heart attacks, while three teammates vomited on the ice. Malarchuk's life was saved by Pizzutelli, a former army medic who had served in Vietnam. He reached into Malarchuk's neck and pinched off the bleeding, not letting go until doctors arrived to begin suturing the wound. Amazingly, after receiving more than 300 stitches to close the wound, Malarchuk returned to practice four days later, having spent only one night in the hospital. And about a week after that, he was back between the pipes against the Quebec Nordiques, having missed only six games.

Now a goalie coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Malarchuk immediately contacted the Panther organization to offer his support, and to pass on his phone number in case Zednik wants someone to talk to, someone who understands like no one else.

"There's nothing anybody can say to make this go away," Malarchuk said, "But I'd tell him he should get back as quick as he can -- I've extended my phone number in case I can help."

But according to doctors, there’s no comparing the injuries, similar though they may seem. They say Zednik's injury was much more life- threatening.

"Clint actually cut his external jugular vein, which is quite different from your common carotid artery," Dr. Leslie J. Bisson said. "Your common carotid artery, when that's lacerated, it can very quickly become a fatal injury." Bisson is the Sabres team doctor.

The four doctors who treated Zednik used words Monday such as "profusely," "devastating," "hanging by a thread" and "lucky" in a press conference to describe the sliced carotid artery injury suffered by Zednik on Sunday. They described a scene that likely would have been fatal if not for a sequence of fortunate events.

The blow could have been deadly if:
*Zednik hadn't skated immediately to the bench, a 100-foot journey that left a wide trail of blood. That allowed trainers and doctors to reach him quicker.

*Bisson hadn't been positioned next to the bench. He was able to hop out of the stands and meet Zednik near his bench. Bisson immediately put pressure on the gushing artery, slowing the bleeding.

*The artery had been completely severed. It wasn't, allowing Dr. Sonya Noor and Dr. Richard Curl to quickly find the injury and reattach it cleanly. If the artery had torn fully, it would have retracted and moved, causing further complications.

Well-wishers can leave Richard a get-well message at www.floridapanthers.com. I purposely left out any links to the footage of either Zednik’s or Malarchuk’s injuries, out of respect to both players and their families. Trust me, they’re out there and easy to find if you really want to see.

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