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Future cloudy for Bruschi

Posted: Sunday, February 20, 2005

BOSTON — Former NHL player Brian Mullen is one of the few pro athletes who has a sense of what New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi is going through.

Mullen, like Bruschi, suffered a mild stroke, his coming in 1993. The former New York Islander made a comeback attempt two years later after undergoing surgery to correct the heart problem that caused his stroke, but eventually decided to retire.

''I think the biggest thing you've got to overcome is your own mind,'' Mullen said. ''It definitely gets in your head. You ask yourself, 'Am I doing the right thing for my family?'''

One of the team's most popular players, the 31-year-old Bruschi was released Friday from Massachusetts General Hospital after spending two days there recovering from a mild stroke that caused numbness, blurred vision and severe headaches.

He waved and smiled but didn't comment to reporters as he stepped into a waiting sports utility vehicle and drove off. Patriots spokesman Stacey James did not respond to questions about whether Bruschi would be able to play pro football again.

Experts say his return will depend on the stroke's cause and severity. A mild stroke isn't necessarily a career-ending event for a professional athlete, but the risk is higher for someone who takes the punishment of an NFL linebacker.

Doctors pointed to Bruschi's quick release from the hospital, along with reports that he was walking and talking normally a day after the stroke, as hopeful signs that he may be able continue his career. Still, his prognosis remains uncertain because all strokes cause some level of brain damage and can raise fears of a recurrence.

''There really is no good stroke,'' said Dr. Larry Brass, a professor of neurology, epidemiology and public health at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Hockey, like football, is a fast, full-contact sport, and one of Mullen's concerns about returning was taking a hit. When he got past that, he had to convince his teammates it was OK to hit him in practice. Eventually, he said, he stopped fearing that his body couldn't take the punishment.

He looks back at his difficult decision to retire and wonders if he should have kept trying. But he added that the stroke changed everything.

''As an athlete, up to that point, you feel invincible,'' Mullen said. ''Something like that happens, and it shakes up your whole life.''

Bruschi, a nine-year veteran, has been a key member of the defense that helped New England win three of the last four Super Bowls. On Sunday, Bruschi played in his first Pro Bowl in Hawaii.

His wife, Heidi, called 911 on Wednesday, saying he was experiencing ''blurred vision, numbness on the right side of his body.''

An estimated 700,000 people per year in the United States suffer strokes, which occur when blood flow to the brain is interrupted. The vast majority result from clots that block the brain's arteries. Another type involves bleeding in or around the brain, sometimes due to ruptured blood vessels.

The hospital and the Patriots have not said what kind of stroke Bruschi suffered.

Experts said it could be weeks before doctors pinpoint the stroke's cause, and Bruschi's professional future won't be any clearer until they do.

''Even if the effects of the stroke are mild, and we hope they are, the crucial thing is determining the cause,'' said Dr. Robert Adams, a spokesman for the American Stroke Association.

The damage from a stroke depends on several factors, including how long before it was treated, what part of the brain the stroke occurs in and the intensity of the rehabilitation.

Brass said Bruschi's apparently quick recovery could be a sign of a specific type of stroke in which the symptoms last less than 24 hours and leave no lasting damage. A traumatic injury to a part of the body can also damage blood vessels and lead to clotting, but that wouldn't be a big risk once the blood vessel healed.

Tests could also reveal a predisposition to blood vessel tears or other factors which would make a return to the field risky, Brass said.

Strokes among people as young as Bruschi are relatively rare, with about 30,000 to 40,000 occurring annually in people ages 18 to 50. A cause is difficult to pinpoint in many of those cases because the possibilities aren't as obvious as they are in older people, who often have cholesterol problems.

''It's like your car breaking down after 5,000 miles,'' Brass said. ''Something's wrong.''



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