Mitch Petrus, who won a Super-Bowl with the New York Giants in 2011, died of heat stroke at the very young age of 32. He had worked outside all day at his parents’ shop in greater than 100 degree heat index weather during a Pan-Arkansas heat advisory. Late in the afternoon, he felt sick, came inside and was taken to Baptist Health Medical Center in North Little Rock at 9 p.m. and was pronounced dead just before midnight.
His Football Career
Petrus was a very good tight end at Carlisle High School, but in college, tight ends have to be able to run very fast, so he received no college scholarship offers. He went to the University of Arkansas as a walk on, and told the coaches that he was a fullback. Fullbacks also need to be able to run very fast, so the coaches told him that because he weighed more that most of the other players, he should be an offensive guard, who needed to be big and strong, rather than big and fast. Petrus worked harder than everyone else in the weight room and ate massive amounts of food, so at 6’3″ he grew to eventually weigh 315 pounds of sheer determination. He played in 49 games with 25 starts, and improved every year. In 2007 he was all-Southeastern Conference offensive guard and repeated that honor in 2009, when he didn’t allow a single sack. In 2009, he was graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in agricultural economics.
At the 2010 National Football League Scouting Combine, he was among the strongest applicants when he completed an impressive 45 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press. That year he was the 147th pick in the National Football league draft. He was part of the New York Giants team that beat the New England Patriots in the 2011 Super Bowl XLVI. In 2012, he moved to the New England Patriots and then to the Tennessee Titans who waived him in 2013. He returned to live in Arkansas where he played bass guitar in a band called Vikings of the North Atlantic and often appeared as a game analyst and sidelines reporter during televised high school football games. He served as the Republican state chamber president’s chief of staff during the 2018 session.
Signs of Heat Stroke
Nobody should ever die of heat stroke, a rapid uncontrolled rise in body temperature that can cause you to pass out or even die. Your body sends you warning signals as your temperature rises. In 1965, I passed out and could have died from heat stroke in an unimportant local race in Arlington, Virginia. I am still embarrassed by the stupidity that I showed when I ignored all the warning signs as my temperature continued to climb. First your muscles are affected, then your lungs and then your brain.
• Muscles: As your temperature starts to rise, your muscles feel like a hot poker is pressing against them. It is normal for intense exercise to make your muscles burn, but hard exercise does not cause painful burning that feels like fire. Furthermore, the burning of hard exercise is relieved by slowing down, while the muscle burning of impending heat stroke does not go away when you slow down.
• Lungs: As your temperature rises further, the air that you breathe feels like it is coming from a furnace and no matter how rapidly and deeply you try to breathe, you can’t take in enough air. When you exercise intensely, you can become very short of breath, but the air you breathe will not burn your lungs. Burning in your lungs, not relieved by slowing down, signals impending heat stroke. When you feel that the air is so hot that it burns your lungs, stop exercising or whatever you are doing. This sign means that your heart cannot pump enough blood from your exercising muscles to your skin so heat is accumulating and your temperature is rising rapidly. Your temperature is now over 104 degrees F and continuing to exercise will raise your body temperature even further so it will start to cook your brain.
• Brain: When heat stroke begins to affect your brain, your head will start to hurt, you may hear a ringing in your ears, feel dizzy and have difficulty seeing. Then you will end up unconscious. Your temperature is now over 106 and your brain is being cooked just like the colorless portion of an egg that turns white when it hits a hot griddle.
Mechanism of Heatstroke
During exercise, more than 70 percent of the energy used to drive your muscles is lost as heat, so your heart has to pump the heat in your bloodstream from your hot muscles to your skin where you sweat and the sweat evaporates to cool your skin to dissipate the heat. The harder you exercise, the more heat your muscles produce. Everyone who exercises, particularly in hot weather, has to sweat to keep their body temperatures from rising too high.
Risk for heat stroke is increased by:
• any pre-existing illness
• heart disease
• use of various recreational drugs such as cocaine, and some prescription drugs
• lack of fitness
• not drinking enough fluid
• exercising for extended periods without eating
• wearing excess clothing that traps heat in your body
• not listening to your body when you feel the warning signs described above
Many cases of heat stroke during exercise occur when a person suddenly increases the intensity of exercise, such as a sprint at the end of a long distance running or cycling race, or an intense run down the field in soccer.
When a person passes out from heat stroke, dial 911 and get medical help immediately. Any delay in cooling can kill the person with heat stroke, and you may need an expert to help decide if the person has passed out from heat stroke or a heart attack. If you cool a person who is having a heart attack, you can cause irregular heartbeats or even stop the heart from pumping blood and oxygen to the brain.
Carry the victim rapidly into the shade and place him on his back with his head down and feet up to help blood can circulate to his brain. Once it has been established that the person is not having a heart attack, he or she can be cooled by hosing down or pouring on any liquids you can find. Evaporation of any liquid cools. As he cools, he may suddenly wake up and talk to you and act like nothing has happened. Don’t stop cooling him, because while he is sitting or lying there, his temperature can rise again and he can go into convulsions or pass out again. He must be watched for several hours after he is revived.
Lessons from a Death from Heat Stroke
• When you are out in hot weather, know the signs of heat buildup (muscles burning, air burning your lungs and exaggerated shortness of breath). Stop moving as you feel increasing body temperature and get inside to air conditioning or into a swimming pool.
• Never wait for the brain symptoms; by then it could be too late. You are in big trouble and need emergency medical help if you suffer chest pain, headache, ringing in your ears, dizziness or difficulty seeing, or feeling as if you might pass out.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com.