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Action Sports Report

3/26/2009
Falling from this height can mess up a lot more than your spleen. Getty Images

[Ed.'s Note: The Action Sports Report is a weekly blog that covers sports from skateboarding to snowboarding to FMX.]

Last Friday during slopestyle practice at the U.S. Open of Snowboarding in Stratton, Vermont, Jamie Anderson took what normally would have been a routine fall. She speed checked, caught her toeside edge and flew face-first toward the snow. But as she landed, her left knee smashed into her abdomen, rupturing her spleen.

Of course, at the time, neither Anderson, 18, nor the on-site medics who treated her, knew for certain she had ruptured her spleen. But the prevalence of the injury in action sports—especially in snowboarding—made them suspicious. In mainstream sports, the ruptured spleen would be cause for media mayhem. But in action sports, the spleen is old news.

Case in point: During a 2006 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms left the game for two plays in the second half after complaining of sore ribs and dehydration. He returned and finished the game, although he continued to complain of increasing pain in his abdomen. After the game, Simms was taken to the hospital—and rushed into emergency surgery with a ruptured spleen. For much of the week following that game, the sports media was obsessed with the spleen. Mostly because Simms' injury is uncommon in his sport (football players wear pads for a reason) but also because he played through the injury, without passing out—or worse. His ability to play through the pain made his story all the more astonishing.

The spleen, which is located just below the left breast and beneath the ribcage, is an important part of the immune system. It filters the blood by destroying bacteria and destroying and recycling old red blood cells. It is also a blood reservoir, supplying the body with extra blood in case of an emergency like a severe cut. When the spleen ruptures, all that blood needs somewhere to go, and it begins filling the abdomen. If the possibility of a ruptured spleen isn't considered during a football injury, a person could bleed to death while their trainers argue broken rib vs. bruised kidney.

But in action sports, the moment an athlete takes a hard hit to the left side of his or her body, trainers, coaches and many of the athletes themselves know it could mean a ruptured spleen. So they ask the right questions: Is your belly sensitive? Is there bruising? Do your collarbones hurt? (The last symptom is caused by pressure from an abdomen filling with blood) And they take the right precautions (ER, stat!).

That was the case last weekend. Less than an hour after her injury, Anderson was in the Emergency Room of Southwestern Vermont Medial Center in Bennington, under the close watch of doctors and trauma nurses who were trying desperately to save what was left of her spleen. She had lost three pints of blood and two-thirds of her spleen was damaged beyond repair. "If her body didn't stop the bleeding, they would have flown her to Albany for a procedure," says mom, Lauren Anderson. A splenectomy was a last resort. But within a few days, her body clotted and stemmed the bleeding on its own. "The spleen is a really important organ, so the doctors told me they don't want to remove it if they don't have to," Lauren says. (Anyone who's seen the six-inch vertical scar freestyle motocrosser Brian Deegan flaunts on the cover of his documentary, Disposable Hero, knows a splenectomy is serious surgery.)

Anderson was released on Thursday morning, after spending seven days in ICU. She is ground-bound for a week, unable to fly, and will be on the DL for the next three months. Fortunately, the snowboard season is essentially over and doesn't start up again for, well, three months.

And there was another silver lining to Anderson's weekend. Despite missing finals at the U.S. Open, Anderson—who also missed a few contests, including the Winter X Games, earlier in the season with a broken pelvis—had already accumulated enough points to win the Burton Global Open Series title and is still the overall TTR Tour leader. After Sunday's ceremony announcing her as the BGOS champ, Anderson's friends showed up at the hospital with an oversized check for $100,000. That put a smile on her face. "I told her to take some of the money, take some time off and go to Hawaii," mom says. "For once, I think she's going to listen to me."


A short history of the spleen and actions sports:

• BMXer Dave Mirra calls his ruptured spleen the biggest injury of his career. He tore the organ in half and had to have it removed.

• At 18, snowboarder Travis Rice ruptured his spleen and spent six days in the ICU. At the end of the ordeal, he got to keep his spleen.

• In 1993, BMXer Mat Hoffman had his spleen burst after an attempt at setting a height record (for MTV) went bad and he fell nearly 40 feet onto plywood. Hoffman was bleeding so badly internally that he flat lined—twice—before arriving at the hospital. Doctors removed his spleen and saved his life.

• In 2005, freestyle motocross rider Brian Deegan lost a kidney and ruptured his spleen while filming for the MTV show Viva La Bam. Judging by the size of his scar, he underwent surgery.