August 18, 2010

Getting back to normal

Off-season surgeries are normal for college athletes particularly college football players. A knee scope or a shoulder scope are routine after a year of wear and tear. But spleen removal surgery is not common for anyone and is by no means the norm. But for linebacker Herman Lathers the decision to have his spleen removed was in an effort to try to return to being normal.

For the Louisiana native, there was nothing normal about last year for him, his position coach, Lance Thompson or the Vol medical staff.

How abnormal?

Put it this way, there were several weeks during last season, that Thompson got word at noon on Saturday that Lathers could play in a game later that afternoon or evening.

Lathers has a condition called Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura or ITP. The blood disorder is a condition where a person's immune system (primarily the spleen) destroys platelets needed for blood clotting. Without the ability for the blood to clot the risk of internal bleeding from an on the field collision was the issue in determining whether or not Lathers could play each week. To determine how great the risk was, Lathers had to be tested every week. Sometimes twice a week, and sometimes three times including a gameday test.

"I had to get my blood checked at least twice a week and I really wasn't cleared to play till Thursday or Friday or even Saturday," said Lathers, who had 52 tackles a year ago and fortunately didn't miss a game. "I wasn't able to just step in and be prepared because they had to prepare someone else if I couldn't go. It was kind of hard."

It was hard for everyone. For linebackers coach Lance Thompson it was hard to determine how many practice reps to give Lathers and how ready to get him to play each week.

"Last year, it was a frustrating situation for him and it was a scary situation for me as a coach," Thompson said. "Because of the condition he had, you couldn't count on playing him. If he takes a hit and has internal bleeding then he could lose his life. I think just the peace of mind knowing that he doesn't have that condition to worry about any more. I know from my perspective preparation wise we can go full bore and give him the reps he needs. Last year, we limited his reps because we didn't know if he could be out there."

"[This year] There's a huge difference because I can count on him."

Lathers was also a challenge to the medical staff. Every Tuesday morning, Lathers was tested. Tuesday was a contact day and the team doctors needed to know where his platelet count was to determine if he could take contact that day. After getting the result of that test, how much medication, if any at that time was needed, was determined. The medication took a couple of days to take effect. So on Friday Lathers was retested to see where his count was to try and determine if any more medication was needed for him to be cleared to play on Saturday. And often times, Lathers was tested again on Saturday if the number was close to the borderline on Friday.

As the season went on, the medication became less and less effective and Lathers was left with a decision. A final potential resolution: remove the spleen.

"I really didn't know anything about it. My mom didn't want me to do it at first," Lathers admitted. "She wanted to make sure there wasn't any other options before taking out my spleen. We wanted that to be the last resort. It was and so we decided to do it. Doctors told us that you could live a normal life without a spleen. You just have to get shots once every five years. I am good with that."

And the 6-0, 225 pound Lathers is good with not getting blood work done two and sometimes even three days a week.

"I am able to focus a lot more now that it's resolved," Lathers admitted. "I talke to the team Chaplin (Roger Woods) a lot and he is a real inspiration. I talked to my brother back home and he is an inspiration. Both were there for me last year when I went through everything. It's a big relief to not have to go through that now."

Added Lathers, "This is the healthiest I have been since my freshman year."

With the worries behind him, Lathers finds himself currently on top in a battle for the starting position at weakside linebacker.

And there's no doubt about Lathers' availability thanks to an offseason that was anything but routine.

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