By Sola Ogundipe with Agency Reports
Nigerian-born Dr. Bennet Omalu, currently the Chief Medical Examiner, San Joaquin County, California, and President/Medical Director of Bennet Omalu Pathology, was the first to identify, describe and name a new disorder known as, as a disease entity in American football players and wrestlers.
A forensic pathologist, and certified physician executive in medical management, Omalu, 47, who hails from Anambra state, discovered in 2002 a condition described as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE, a neurodegenerative disease in the brains of football players caused by repeated brain trauma over time and causes depression, dementia, and other behavioural changes.
Popularly known as the “Concussion Doctor”, Omalu made his landmark discovery following an autopsy he performed on former Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster.
Webster, aged 50, had died of a heart attack after years of depression and dementia that led to him becoming homeless and forgetting how to do basic things, such as eating.
From the examination Omalu made of Webster and other football players, including Dave Duerson and Andre Waters, he determined that repeated head trauma from the sport causes a brain condition that leads to memory loss, impaired judgement, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and eventually progressive dementia.
Although doctors knew that boxers suffered brain problems after years of continuous head trauma, it was Omalu who first associated the condition with football players.
When Omalu cut slices from Webster’s brain and looked at them under a microscope, he was surprised to see tangled proteins and other characteristic signs of CTE.
A year later, Omalu examined the brain of Terry Long — another Steelers legend, who’d killed himself at age 45 by drinking antifreeze — and saw the same picture.
“This stuff should not be in the brain of a 45-year-old man,” Omalu later said. “This looks more like a 90-year-old brain with advanced Alzheimer’s.”
Prompted by Omalu’s discovery, doctors at Boston University’s CTE Centre examined 79 deceased NFL players’ brains and found CTE in 76 of them. Many died by suicide or had dramatic changes in personality after retirement. Still, the overall rate of CTE in all players is unknown — it could be an epidemic or a relatively rare problem.
Omalu’s discovery of CTE raised numerous concerns about the safety of American football, a development that the National Football League, NFL, challenged vigorously. For years, though, the NFL tried its best to hide the evidence about football and brain trauma, and after Omalu published his findings, the NFL attempted to cover the facts and accused him of fraud and practicing voodoo.
He was barred from league meetings on football and the brain, along with other doctors who later worked on CTE.
Omalu’s Nigerian descent was questioned and he was accused of attacking the American way of life. But his discovery gained more attention and eventually, the NFL was compelled to introduce a concussion guideline in the game.
But the Nigerian’s finding — and the subsequent discovery of CTE in dozens of deceased football players — subsequently transformed the football world, raising concerns about the safety of American football.
A movie, entitled “Concussion” that is based on this discovery, is scheduled to premiere September 8, 2015, in which Hollywood star, Will Smith, plays Dr. Bennet Omalu. The trailer for the movie released this week, tells the true story of the Nigerian-born doctor’s discovery, and it is expected to make many Americans rethink the dangers of football and how the NFL functions.
In 2009, the league finally acknowledged the problem and instituted concussion management guidelines, which include neuropsychological testing on all NFL players to help determine when a player could return to play after a head injury.
It introduced new protocols to make sure concussed players are properly diagnosed, and donated money for concussion and CTE research.
Omalu obtained his medical degree from the University of Nigeria in 1991, Masters in Public Health, MPH, degree in Epidemiology from University of Pittsburgh in 2004, and Masters in Business Administration, MBA, from Carnegie Mellon University in 2008, and holds four board certifications in Anatomic Pathology, Clinical Pathology, Forensic Pathology and Neuropathology.
He has testified twice before the United States Congress and has provided hundreds of testimonies as an expert witness in federal courts and state courts across the United States. A member of many professional organizations, including but not limited to the College of American Pathologists, American Society of Clinical Pathology, American College of Physician Executives, American College of Epidemiologists, American Association of Neuropathologists, American Academy of Forensic Sciences, National Association of Medical Examiners, International Academy of Pathology and American Medical Association.