It was a year ago Tuesday, on Aug. 22, 2005, that Lakeside High School freshman Chelsea Collins, a bright, cheerful 14-year-old, collapsed and died while walking on the school track during PE.
Early speculation, some of it ugly, focused on the heat. Even though it turned out the likely cause of Chelsea's death was a previously undetected heart defect, Columbia County school officials still have gotten very squeamish about heat and outdoor activities.
As a result, the county's new, stricter policy has the Lakeside Marching Band - in which Chelsea was a percussionist - practicing for football season from 7-9 p.m. The football teams have been forced to practice indoors, early in the morning or late in the day.
Even so, across the state in Clayton County, another teenage girl died this past week. The 16-year-old cross-country runner collapsed during warmups.
Heat-related? Nope; like Chelsea, Shadvina Leavell died from a heart defect. In Shadvina's case, the routine physical taken for sports activities didn't include an exam that would have found the heart problem.
The knowledge is a little startling. Shortly after Chelsea's death last year, a concerned co-worker asked whether Chelsea had heart problems. I didn't take the question very seriously because, at the time, everyone thought the heat was to blame. My co-worker persisted, pointing out that her own family history included heart problems that didn't show up on routine sports physicals. I just did a lot of nodding.
I recalled those comments after the coroner's report blamed Chelsea's heart, not the heat. I remembered that conversation again when Shadvina's cause of death was revealed.
Underlying the story about Shadvina's death, which appeared in the Atlanta paper, were questions - like those from my co-worker - about whether there should be improvements in those "routine" sports physicals.
The Georgia High School Association doesn't require electrocardiograms for athletes; they're too expensive for "routine" cases. But it should be easier for doctors to add an EKG when they're suspicious - and they should be suspicious more often.
It's pretty rare for high school athletes to die from heat-related causes. A Rockdale County football player who died Aug. 1 is the only one I've heard of in Georgia this year. It certainly will be even more rare if school systems continue to make it all but impossible for students to participate in outdoor activities when it's even slightly hot.
But if athletes aren't better screened for potential heart problems, it won't much matter if they're practicing during the day or playing at night: They're at risk, like Chelsea, of leaving us far too soon.
The concern about the heat isn't just about people, by the way. The county folks putting on the Animania Pet Fair next Saturday are renting a huge tent so that the dogs who attend won't get overheated.
We have a lot of animal lovers around here, which is great. But sometimes I wonder how any animals ever survived in the wild before people came along to rescue them from summer heat and winter cold.
Meanwhile, Columbia County's big dog received an appointment from the governor this past week.
Gov. Sonny Perdue picked Commission Chairman Ron Cross as a local government representative of the governor's office.
I'm not sure what that means, but it's good when an appointment comes to a local resident. The governor's office makes a lot of appointments to boards all over the state; yet when his PR people announce them, too many of the names seem to come from Atlanta.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.)
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