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A strange case of football fever

By ROBERT FRIEDMAN
Published July 24, 2005


If Dr. S. Chandra Swami's diagnosis is correct, Wyatt Sexton, who had been projected as the Florida State Seminoles' starting quarterback this fall, is suffering from one of the most unusual cases of Lyme disease in the annals of medicine.

You may remember that Sexton, 20, was pepper-sprayed and taken to a hospital by Tallahassee police last month after he was found behaving erratically in public. According to police reports, Sexton, wearing only a pair of wet shorts, was doing pushups in the middle of a busy street. Sexton then jumped on top of a parked car, began yelling at a woman and identified himself to police as "God" and "the son of God."

"Based upon my training and experience, Sexton appeared to be under the influence of some unknown narcotic or alcohol," officer Robert Todd wrote in his report on the incident. "He was hot and sweaty and was talking very irrationally."

But the training and experience of Dr. Swami - a Pennsylvania general practitioner described in an official FSU press release as a "world renowned specialist in Lyme disease" - produced a different diagnosis.

The record shows that Dr. Swami often recognizes Lyme disease where others do not. In a deposition in a workers' compensation appeals case in 2002, Dr. Swami asserted that Lyme disease "is mistaken for everything, for all sorts of arthritis, or all sorts of psychiatric existence, cardiac problems, you name it."

In his report on an earlier workers' comp case in which he made a "confident diagnosis" of Lyme disease, Dr. Swami wrote: "I am an innocent victim of this disease due to my love of nature photography. My nurse and one other staff member have it as well as a few of (their) family members. My dog dies of this illness."

According to more conventional medical sources on Lyme disease, the symptoms exhibited by Sexton were almost the exact opposite of those usually associated with the disease. The CDC says Lyme disease, which is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected deer tick, "most often presents with a characteristic "bull's-eye' rash . . . accompanied by nonspecific symptoms such as fever, malaise, fatigue, headache, muscle aches (myalgia), and joint aches (arthralgia)." The CDC does note that late-stage, untreated Lyme disease occasionally can produce "cognitive disorders, sleep disturbance, fatigue and personality changes."

A recent Times article about Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli, who was diagnosed with Lyme disease while in high school, described the weariness typically associated with the disease. According to the article, Baldelli "said he was so fatigued he felt he was on prescription drugs" and "would lay on his couch and doze all day."

Baldelli's case differs from Sexton's in another respect. Baldelli grew up in Rhode Island, in the heart of the North Atlantic region where Lyme disease is most often contracted. Cases of Lyme disease are rare, but not unheard of, in Florida.

Sexton's only significant travel immediately prior to his episode in Tallahassee was to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in rural Tennessee, often referred to as a "modern-day Woodstock." Documented cases of Lyme disease are rare in Tennessee, too.

In any case, I wish Wyatt Sexton the best. Playing quarterback at a football-crazy school such as FSU brings tremendous pressure and scrutiny. Other recent FSU quarterbacks have been involved in incidents that were at least as strange and troubling as Sexton's. Adrian McPherson was charged with check forgery and was the subject of an investigation into illegal gambling on football games. The suspiciously muscled Dan Kendra was cited for detonating an explosive device outside his apartment. Other FSU quarterbacks were involved in more run-of-the-mill bar fights and traffic incidents. In those and other cases, FSU athletic and academic officials often have seemed more concerned with saving face than with addressing players' problems in a fair and honest way.

The pressures on Sexton no doubt have been compounded by the fact that his father is a longtime member of the Seminoles' football coaching staff. Sexton hasn't been heard from in public since he was detained, but his parents issued a statement through the university complaining that "it has . . . been hurtful to Wyatt and our family to see media reports that were simply not true."

Dr. Swami has wisely determined that Sexton "should not be stressed" by athletics while he recuperates. At some point in his recuperation, Sexton - an intelligent young man who was mature enough to lead a major-college football team a few months ago - could help to resolve the lingering concerns about his well-being by speaking for himself and allowing the FSU public-relations machine to take a break.

[Last modified August 4, 2005, 15:22:45]


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