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National Columnist

Tulsa doctor stays calm in scary situation, thanks to emergency training

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Devon Walker (right) suffered a severe spinal cord injury on this hit at the end of the first half Saturday. (AP)  
Devon Walker (right) suffered a severe spinal cord injury on this hit at the end of the first half Saturday. (AP)  

Without much in the way of conscious thought, Dr. Brad Boone started running across the field. Somehow he just knew, even if he had never seen this before. Not in more than 20 years as Tulsa's team physician. Not in more than 200 football games. Not ever, on a playing field.

But when Tulane's Devon Walker went down and didn't get up Saturday against Tulsa, Boone knew.

"Your training kicks in," Boone said. "Not just me, but all the guys there. The Tulane trainer and team physician. Our trainer and Dr. [George] Mauerman. You never want to see it, but we knew what we had to do."

On the final play of the first half, Walker collided helmet-to-helmet with a teammate. Within hours he would be diagnosed with a cervical spine fracture, but at the time Boone got there, Tulane's medical staff had Walker lying on his back, making sure he could breathe. They were checking for movement or feeling in Walker's extremities. There was none.

"It was an emergency situation," Boone said.

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And then it got worse.

Walker went into neurogenic shock, which can happen after trauma to a person's spinal cord. His heart rate and blood pressure plummeted. There on the field, with Devon Walker wearing a helmet and pads and a football uniform, it was difficult to tell if his heart was still working.

Boone heard someone gently speak up:

"Devon, stay with us."

Boone found out later the speaker was Tulane football coach Curtis Johnson, who hadn't gone into the locker room with his team, choosing instead to stay on the field with his fallen player. Given Walker's vital signs, Boone and the other medical staffers on the field -- Mauerman, Tulane team physician Greg Stewart, trainers from both teams -- went into emergency room mode.

One performed CPR on Walker, compressing his chest. Another made sure Walker's airway remained open and his head secure. IVs were administered to lift his blood pressure. Adrenaline was pumped into his blood stream to increase his heart rate. An oxygen mask was lowered onto his face.

"You just need multiple hands in there," Boone said. "Your training kicks in."

In Boone's case, that training started in Alabama under famed sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews, then continued for five years at a trauma center in Memphis. What happened Saturday on the field at Tulsa, the resuscitation of Devon Walker? Similar resuscitation efforts happened in Memphis. Every night for almost five years.

Sometimes, of course, the resuscitation effort wasn't followed by an actual resuscitation. People died in Memphis. They die at trauma centers all over the country, every day. That's where team physicians, doctors like Boone and Mauerman and Stewart, have spent years -- saving lives when they can, unknowingly preparing for moments like Saturday.

"The majority of the team physicians in Division I are those kind of guys," Boone said. "We make our living doing ACL surgeries and fixing shoulders, but most of us have that kind of background, working years in settings when you had to get it done."

In 21 years at Tulsa, Boone had helped put 10 or 15 football players on one of those boards that come out for serious injuries. In those cases, Boone said, it was precautionary. Nobody had suffered a serious spinal injury or needed actual resuscitation efforts until Devon Walker on Saturday.

The last time Boone was involved with anything like Saturday, it was on a highway in Tulsa. This was about 15 years ago, when Boone worked high school football games on Friday nights. His game had ended without incident, but while driving home Boone came across a bad crash. He was the first medical responder to wreckage in which one victim had suffered, in Boone's words, "multiple fractures, head injury, not breathing well. Basically I breathed for him, gave chest compressions until the ambulance got there. I think we made a difference that night."

They made a difference Saturday, too. After 20 minutes on the field, Devon Walker was breathing on his own. His heart rate and blood pressure were at safe levels. He was taken by ambulance to nearby Saint Francis Hospital, which Boone had called from the field. He also had called the St. Francis neurosurgeon on call, who greeted Walker's ambulance at the door. Boone stayed on the sideline for the rest of the game, talking by phone to the neurosurgeon for updates on Walker's various tests: X-rays, CAT scan, MRI. Boone passed along what he learned to the Tulane physician at the stadium.

"The second half was a fog," Boone said.

So was the rest of the night. After the game, Boone and Mauerman went to the hospital and spent an hour in the ICU with Walker. Then Boone went home, where his kids -- ages 12 and 13 -- were waiting. His wife was out of town on a trip, so Boone helped them to bed, then tried unsuccessfully to unwind.

"All the doctors, I'm sure, were just like me after what had happened," Boone said. "And I was in a daze."


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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