EPHEDRINE Didn't Cause Wheeler's Death

Tuesday, August 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ Northwestern football player Rashidi Wheeler had the stimulant ephedrine in his system when he collapsed during a grueling Aug. 3 workout, but the banned substance did not cause his death, the Cook County medical examiner said Monday.

``We do not think this contributed to his death,'' Dr. Edmund Donoghue said. ``We think this is a classic case of exercise-induced bronchial asthma.''

Wheeler, a chronic asthmatic, collapsed during a preseason conditioning drill involving a series of wind sprints and was pronounced dead a short time later at Evanston Hospital. Donoghue had earlier listed bronchial asthma as the cause of death.

Wheeler's mother, Linda Will, has said the university wasn't prepared to deal with such an emergency during what was supposed to be a voluntary preseason workout, with no oxygen on the field and not enough medical staff present. She has enlisted the help of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr.

``It really doesn't change our focus simply because we are looking at what could have been done after he had gone down,'' said Randall Schwartz, an attorney for Will. ``The cause of why he went down remains what it was originally. So the question for us remains the same: Was he given adequate and appropriate medical care?''

The university has been investigating the incident, including whether Wheeler took a nutritional supplement containing a form of ephedrine, a substance banned by the NCAA that has been linked to strokes and heart attacks.

Wheeler had both ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in his system that came from the Chinese herb ma huang, an ingredient in some nutritional supplements. While Donoghue couldn't say conclusively that Wheeler used a nutritional supplement, he said the toxicology report is consistent with its use.

But the amount of the stimulants in Wheeler's system were ``well below toxic or lethal levels,'' Donoghue said.

Published reports have suggested Wheeler may have taken an energy-enhancing supplement containing ephedrine. And Donoghue said the medical examiner's office was given a supplement called Ultimate Punch.

``The levels are consistent with what someone might have if you had taken that supplement the day he died,'' Donoghue said.

Ephedrine also is used to treat asthmatics, but Donoghue said the drug didn't come from medication.

``It's reported someone said he took the supplement. Now we find he's got ephedrine in his system. This is the most likely explanation for it,'' he said.

Toxicology tests also showed no sign of albuterol, the medication in most asthma inhalers. That means it probably wasn't used that day, Donoghue said. Northwestern linebacker Pat Durr said a teammate sprayed an inhaler into Wheeler's mouth, but Wheeler appeared to be laboring too much to inhale it.

Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage said the medical examiner's report would be included in the school's internal review.

``Certainly this additional information will be helpful as we do our review. This is one of many aspects involved in it,'' he said.

Wheeler's family also has alleged it took too long for paramedics to be called after he collapsed, possibly as long as 40 minutes. A videotape released by the family shows the conditioning drill continuing even after Wheeler was helped off the field.

The release of the 911 calls Monday show that when paramedics were called, the first attempt failed as the caller was cut off. The second caller got through and was able to direct emergency personnel to the field.

Durr said paramedics weren't called sooner because the attack didn't initially seem to be any different than other attacks Wheeler had had. Northwestern trainer Tory Aggeler has said Wheeler had more than 30 asthma attacks in his three years at Northwestern. Wheeler had passed a physical July 12.

Cubbage said he didn't know when or if Northwestern football players would be drug tested this year, saying that the NCAA prescribes the testing policies. NCAA spokeswoman Jane Jankowski said Division I football players are subject to testing at any time during the year, but may not be tested at all.

Ephedrine was listed as a stimulant on the NCAA's banned list in July 1997, Jankowski said. A player that violates the policy could be ruled ineligible for one calendar year and charged with the loss of one full season, meaning the lost season could not be made up.