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Max
11-22-2002, 12:01 PM
Motocross unhealthy?
By JAMES HARRISON/The Daily Journal


Thursday, November 21, 2002 -

During the last two weekends he's worked at the Ukiah Valley Medical Center, Dr. Kenneth Hoek has dealt with six serious motocross injuries. Four of the six involved children.

The orthopedic surgeon treated one ten-year-old boy who broke both of his wrists, one of which required surgery, the other a cast. Another fourteen year old boy broke his shoulder, also requiring surgery.

"Kids as young as four years old are allowed on the track," says Hoek. "These kids go far enough to get airborne. When you're airborne, you have enough kinetic energy to break any bone in your body - including your neck and spinal cord even when wearing full protection.

"When they're on the track in full gear, these kids look invincible. When I see them, they are like all other hurt kids scared and with no concept of what just happened to them or the possible long term consequences."

Injuries to the joints are particularly dangerous for children, he stresses, because, "that is where the growth centers of the bones are. For example, a fracture in an adult in this area simply needs to heal. A fracture in a kid needs to heal, but if the bone doesn't grow right then it will cause deformity and major damage."

Despite all the protective gear they wear, he continues, because motorcross participants have to be free to steer and otherwise operate their bikes, their joints are still vulnerable to injury.

"I'm worried I'm going to be seeing a significant broken neck soon, with death or paralysis."

Most parents, Hoek believes, "do not realize how dangerous this is for their kids." Once they do, he adds, "most of them say they're not going to let their kids race again. What I am hoping is that a little publicity to let parents know how dangerous it is, will slow down this carnage we are seeing."

Promoter responds

Blair Aiken is a promoter for North State Racing Association, which puts on motocross events at Redwood Empire Fairgrounds.

"The parents," counters Aiken, "are well aware of the risks involved. Before they can even practice racing, they have waivers they have to sign. A waiver of liability release against the State of California (which owns the fairgrounds,) then it just goes right on down the list to the insurance companies and stuff like that."

In addition, he continues, "One thing the doctors are failing to recognize is, yeah, the last race that we had, we had two broken arms, one kid broke both arms which was unfortunate, another kid broke another arm, but for that three days, we probably put three hundred riders or better on the race tracks.

"If you look at high school football, I think there are 12 players on the field at a time for each team, versus one of our starting gates (which) holds 28 bikes, and we could drop it up to three times in a race."

In other words, Aiken asserts, the risk of injury compared to other sports is relatively low. "There is risk in any type of sport than you do, and it is just that we have more participants with a higher skill level, with motorcycles."

He also feels that many of the injuries that do occur, happen off the track.

"I see kids that come all the time to a motocross track and they're in a cast and I say, well, what happened to you?' and they say well, I was over at a friend's house goofing off and I broke my leg.'"

Still, he acknowledges there is some risk involved, even on the track.

"The main injury that we have for some reason, we have quite a few broken arms, because they just fall...Secondary to a broken arm, collar bones seem to be a big thing too."

Physicians not convinced

Dr. Hoek disputes the idea that most of the serious accidents happen off the track.

"The injuries I've seen, have all happened on the race track," he insists. "I'm talking specifically about ones on the track. Secondly, even if you took (those) numbers of 300 kids, and three major injuries that is one out of a hundred. That is very high. In the course of a football season I may see a few knee injuries, but never in the concentrated numbers like we're seeing from motocross. I've treated football injuries here in Ukiah for over twenty years. They're not as prevalent and kids are older."

Hoek is not the only physician concerned about the issue.

Doctors Marvin Trotter and Roger Cheitlin work in the UVMC's emergency room.

"I saw an injury just last week," says Trotter, "a ten year old child who was thrown from his motor bike and into a mound of dirt. Fortunately he was wearing a cervical collar as a safety precaution ... Had he not been wearing the C-collar, he could have suffered a serious spinal injury.

"One patient I had was a 16 year old who ripped open his inner thigh after part of the bike (tore) open his right leg during an accident with another cyclist. He had a good eight-inch laceration."

Another 12 year old suffered an injury to his spleen, which "fortunately did not require surgery. People frequently have their spleens taken out when they have such injuries." Damage to the spleen, Trotter adds, is "potentially fatal."

"These people are wearing lots of protective clothing, and they are still having lots of serious injures, which should speak volumes about the risk involved in the sport," he concludes.

"I've seen a number of young kids who come in with significant injuries who do motocross," Cheitlin weighs in. "They're wearing helmets, they're usually there with their parents. I've seen forearm fractures, joint seperations...The ones I've seen within the last year have been on the race track."

While he may disagree about where the injuries occur, Cheitlin does agree with the motocross promoter on one count.

The parents of his patients, Cheitlin says, "seem to be pretty aware of the risks. They often tell me oh, our son has broken the other arm the year before, or broken their wrist before,' so they are obviously aware of the risks and support their children doing this. Which amazes me."

Hoek finds such an attitude disturbing.

"Parents are a big part of the problem. The kids are going to push their parents to be allowed to race. If parents aren't responsible enough to keep the sport safe, then it becomes a form of child endangerment."

It is one thing for adults to pursue a dangerous activity, knowing the risks involved, Hoek argues, but for children who don't fully comprehend their own mortality, it is quite another.

"Further evidence of parental irresponsibility is the fact that less than half the patients I've treated have medical insurance. This leaves us, the taxpayers, to foot the bill," he adds.

A parent's perspective

Ukiah resident Anne Nix is the mother of two young motocross participants. "We're in kind of an unusual situation," she notes, "in that we have two girls. Julie started when she was five and Alisa started when she was three. And in all these years of racing, neither of them have been hurt in any way."

Julie is now 15, and Alisa 13.

"Of course they wear all the safety gear. We take them out and before any race we look at the track to determine the way they should go that would be the safest for them," Nix continues.

"It's such a family-involved sport and has been forever, and I think that's what we enjoy about it so much. Any track we go to, we meet other families who have the same interests."

Nix also likes the fact that, as opposed to team sports, motocross is an individual pursuit, which brings with it a different sense of accomplishment.

As for the risk of injuries, "of course, as a parent I'm concerned about anything that happens to them, but I mean it could happen at school. There've been children who've broken bones on the monkey bars at school," she says.

Both of her daughters are covered by insurance, Nix adds.

Danielle Piffero, a Redwood Valley parent, continues to support her two sons participating in motocross, even though one was injured.

"I have two boys that race and have been racing for long time. I just had one injured a while ago. He broke his collarbone." Her injured son was practicing for a race on a track outside of Ukiah, Piffero adds.

"He missed a couple of days of school... and he's okay to race again."

At no point, she says, did she consider asking her son to quit racing, because he enjoys it so much. Like Aiken and Nix, Piffero believes risk is a factor with most athletic endeavors, and motocross is no different.

"It didn't seem any worse than any other sport to me. Another friend of ours, their son plays football ... and he got knocked out. They had to be worried about a concussion."

Both women say that the sport has become a part of their family life, so much so that even if their children were to experience truly serious injuries while pursuing it their attitudes will not change.

"They love doing it," Piffero says of her sons. "Our whole family loves doing it together."