I have the greatest respect for Dr Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian medical doctor in the USA who was recently recognised and honoured for his tenacity and steadfastness in the performance of his job. A forensic neuropathologist, Dr Omalu recognised and diagnosed a condition now called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in American football players in 2002. The condition can be reasonably called Punch Drunk Disease, if you like.
Punch Drunk Disease
This disease happens to people who have suffered repeated brain injuries during the game of American football. Now, hope you know that American football is not the same as our football! In fact, they call our own type of football, American Soccer!
But, this punch drunk disease can also occur in other sports such as boxing where there are repeated blows to the head. Effectively, these are small concussions to the brain causing minor brain injuries that accumulate over time. These minor concussions lead to headaches, personality changes, worsening attention, concentration and memory problems. The symptoms are slow in onset, sometimes occurring more than 10 years after the injuries. It has been reported that about 1.6 million to 3.8 million concussions occurring each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA.
Anyway, let us not digress from the issue at hand. Dr Omalu made the diagnosis and it has now been confirmed by postmortem examination in dozens of American athletes. However, that belies the anguish and humiliation he had to endure from the system. You see, after the initial discovery, Dr Omalu, overcame massive efforts by the establishment, both medical and within the football organisation (National Football League, NFL), to discredit him and his research.
Dr. Omalu was working in Pittsburgh when he conducted postmortem examinations of former NFL offensive lineman Mike Webster’s brain and spotted what would become the hallmarks of CTE. He looked at the brain of the man and saw things that he had never seen or read about before. The brain was like that of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease but at the wrong age and without the usual clinical features of Alzheimer.
Dr Omalu said, “I spent six months with those slides. I saw tau randomly situated, and not reminiscent of any other dementia that I knew. My first reaction, when I went to the literature, was that I expected to find previous reports like this, but I didn’t find even one.” He had the case published in 2005 and went on to identify CTE in postmortem examinations of numerous other former NFL players.
Dr. Omalu initially thought the league would be pleased to learn of his findings, but when they were presented at an NFL meeting on concussions in 2007, they were dismissed, and the league—through lawyers, physicians and other experts—went on to mount a coordinated effort to discredit Dr. Omalu and his research. The man was tormented!
The root of all evils
The major reason for this is mainly money. The NFL has a huge turn over in Millions of Dollars which was threatened if parents stop their children from playing American Football. In fact, many careers and business dependent on the business might be affected in what is essentially a great American pastime. So, the findings of the research especially by someone not from America were inimical to the history and financial success of the multi-million Dollar business.
At the time, the Nigerian-born Dr. Omalu was not a U.S. citizen, and his immigration status was dependent on his continued employment. He stuck to his findings in the face of intense pressure, and in 2009—seven years after his discovery—the NFL relented and publicly acknowledged the link between concussions sustained in football and CTE.
Dr Omalu was recently recognised and celebrated by the American Medical Association, AMA. The AMA gave him their highest award, the Distinguished Service Award, at a ceremony recently.
“Because of the service Dr. Omalu has rendered to every player and every family member in the football and other sporting communities, I am delighted to present him, on behalf of the AMA, with—our highest honor,” AMA President Andrew W. Gurman, MD, said in a statement. “His meritorious service is all the more remarkable given that Dr. Omalu was relatively junior at the time of his discovery, having only completed his pathology residency a few years prior to describing CTE.”
Dr. Gurman said he strongly believes “that Dr. Omalu—by his work, determination and dedication—strongly exemplifies the best of American medicine.”
Dr Omalu in Hollywood
The story of Dr. Omalu’s CTE research and the pressure he faced from the NFL inspired the 2015 film “Concussion,” in which he was portrayed by Will Smith. The film was well regarded in Hollywood but had little box office success. Released by Columbia Pictures, in December 25, 2015, the film was considered a commercial disappointment, grossing just $48 million on its $35 million budget, according to Wikipedia.
Regardless, Dr Omalu is a celebrity and deserves all the accolades for his dedication and service to humanity. I spoke to him sometime back before the film was released when we wanted to use his picture to promote the NMA meeting in Abuja. A gentle well-spoken man, he did not want the publicity which now seems totally unavoidable.
More grease to your elbows, Dr Omalu!