MRSA has sidelined careers, even caused death

Updated: March 16, 2007, 4:16 PM ET
By Steve Delsohn and Brian Franey | Special to ESPN.com

Just last year, Mike Gansey's future seemed clear. The West Virginia guard, a first-team All-Big East selection, was looking forward to a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Then it would be off to the NBA, where some scouts had him projected as a first-round draft pick.

Mike Gansey
A year ago, Mike Gansey was celebrating at West Virginia.
"A lot of people were saying second round maybe late first round depending on how my workouts went," Gansey says. "A lot of teams had me going to their workouts, so I thought I had a chance to get drafted pretty high."

But Gansey began feeling weak during his pre-draft workouts, and he ended up going undrafted. He signed with Miami as a free agent. Then he began feeling sicker.

"My knee was starting to get all kinds of spots and starting to form puss and stuff," Gansey says. "I knew there was something wrong."

Gansey had contracted a highly contagious bacterial infection called methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. It is resistant to many antibiotics and can swiftly become a blood or bone infection. Roughly 130,000 Americans are infected with MRSA, and 5,000 die from it, each year. It first appeared mostly in hospitals, but MRSA has now found its way into locker rooms, weight rooms and training facilities.

"You can't physically move. It feels like you got hit by a truck and you don't even know it," says Gansey, who was bedridden in the hospital for two weeks.

Gansey is unsure of where he contracted MRSA. Many athletes get the infection after surgery, including Grant Hill of the Magic and the Patriots' Junior Seau. When athletes get MRSA infections which don't involve surgery, these are called "community-acquired." These infections have struck at all athletic levels -- from high schools to the pros -- and in virtually every sport. But most reported cases have been in wrestling, and particularly football, because athletes often sustain open wounds and there's frequent skin-to-skin contact.

Outside the Lines
"Outside the Lines" investigates the growing epidemic hospitalizing 130,000 Americans each year and making its way into locker rooms and training facilities.
"Football is a sport where people tend to get a lot of breaks in the skin from abrasions they sustain when they go down," says Jeff Hageman, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "And we know that with staph and with MRSA, it requires breaks in the skin to actually cause disease."

Several prominent NBA players have also suffered staph infections, including Paul Pierce of the Celtics and the Cavaliers' Drew Gooden.

In the NFL since 2003, the Redskins, Rams and Browns have reported multiple cases of MRSA and staph infections. Five different Browns have been stricken, including Brian Russell, who got two separate staph infections last season. In 2005, Cleveland wide receiver Braylon Edwards became concerned when a small bump on his elbow began to swell mysteriously.

"The Saturday before we were to play the Bears, I came in and everyone was looking at my elbow during the walk-through, and they were like, 'Braylon, that doesn't look good,'" Edwards says. "Finally, the doctors, or the trainers, they took a look at it, and they said, 'You know this is pretty iffy. Let's take you to the hospital and see what the doc says about it.'"

Doctors told Edwards he had contracted MRSA.

"They told me what the worst-case scenario could be if it got out of control -- amputation," Edwards says. "And if you don't catch it in time, you could die from staph infection."

In 2003, MRSA killed Ricky Lannetti, a college football player at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, when his infection resulted in a deadly case of pneumonia.

"It can come off our skin and onto items -- such as towels that are shared on the sidelines," Hageman says. "So if someone has an infection, picks up a towel, the next person wipes their face with the same towel, that's a potential route of transmission as well."

Hageman says MRSA is mostly spread by direct physical contact, but can also be spread by teammates sharing razors, soap, or towels. As a result, teams on both the pro and college levels have begun better educating athletes about hygiene. In addition, they have hired companies to apply a sterilizing agent designed to kill bacteria to their locker rooms and training facilities.

"Once you get it in there, it's kind of hard to get it out," says Andre Harris, the trainer for the Milwaukee Bucks, who have had no staph infections. "So you want to be proactive about it and try and eliminate it before it even gets to be a problem."

As for Gansey, the Heat released him after he lost 30 pounds from the MRSA infection. But that was the least of his problems. Gansey soon developed MRSA again, this time in his ankle.

"My whole ankle blew up," Gansey says. "It looked like a balloon. It was on the right side of my ankle … the zit puss. They had to have an ankle doctor come in and kind of open it up and take the infection out."

Gansey is now working out in West Virginia, trying to make his way back to the NBA. After all he's been through, he's just happy he still has this opportunity.

"I mean people have lost lives from this, have lost body parts," Gansey says. "It's something you don't want to mess around with, and if you see any little thing that looks suspicious, get it checked out. You never know what it could be."

Steve Delsohn is a reporter, and Brian Franey is producer for ESPN Outside the Lines