Monday, January 7, 2013

The Coach

This is the time of year when many professional football coaches are hired and fired. I've been reading about coaching changes this week, which reminded me of another coach who made the news a number of years ago. This is his story.

Dan Allen was the head football coach at The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. By all accounts, Allen was a fine Christian man. He founded chapters of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at two schools and was active in the organization.

In the spring of 2001, the gymnasium floor in the field house where Allen's office was located was resurfaced. The process took about a week. Allen was not warned about the toxicity of products used or told to avoid the area.

Allen was 45 years old and in good health at the time. When the resurfacing began, he experienced dizziness, headaches, nausea, and disorientation. In the months that followed, he had weakness and fatigue that were debilitating enough that he began to search for medical answers. His headaches became chronic and he lost feeling in one of his toes.

Allen began a series of medical tests, but the diagnosis was elusive. The as-yet-unnamed condition began to affect his neuromuscular system and he developed mobility challenges. He needed a cane to walk.

In 2002, Allen took a four-week medical leave of absence to seek diagnosis and treatment. He was eventually diagnosed with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, likely set in motion by the solvents used in resurfacing the gym floor. He returned to coach the final four games of the season, but his health continued to decline. Allen and his wife discovered, as do many with MCS, that the treatments that proved most helpful were not covered by health insurance. They depleted their life savings and took a second mortgage on their house.

By the beginning of the 2003 football season, Coach Allen was unable to walk, dress, or feed himself. He couldn't move his right hand, but with his left, he was able to drive an electric wheelchair. In May of 2004, Dan Allen lost his fight. He passed away at his home at the age of 48, leaving a wife and three children behind.

There are some important points raised by Dan Allen's story. The first is that chemical injury and MCS are very real. Special interests with deep pockets fight hard to invalidate MCS (see the previous post entitled The Misinformation Campaign for more information), but the truth is that common chemicals can cause a huge array of health problems and can even kill. The author of a Boston Globe column entitled "This Nice-Guy Coach Got a Very Bad Breakput it this way:

"Imagine being hit with this. And then imagine being told by members of the medical establishment that you did not have a certifiable disease and that you may instead be suffering from 'a psychosomatic disorder brought on by stress.' Some psychosomatic illness. The man is dead."

Another point to take from Allen's experience is that no one is too strong to be impacted by toxins. In another Boston Globe story, entitled "Crusader's Toughest Fight," Allen is quoted as saying, "It has been a year and a half of pure hell. I have watched myself deteriorate to the point where I can't walk. Here I am, supposed to be this macho football coach. I was invincible, right? Nothing was going to happen to me. And the scary thing is, it could happen to anybody."

Allen wanted us all to learn from his misfortune. In the previously referenced column, he was quoted as saying, "I really believe some things happen for a reason. Maybe because I’m a public figure, my role is to get information out there on MCS."

Allen's family has continued that mission. They began the Dan Allen Foundation, which they term "A Foundation for Faith, Family, and Hope.”  On their website they state that they exist "for the purpose of raising awareness of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Disorder (MCS) and similar neurological disorders caused by exposure to environmental toxins, chemicals, and pollutants.

We can honor Dan Allen's memory by limiting our use of toxins and by warning others of the chemicals that may harm them. The job of a coach is to instruct and guide. If we allow Allen's story to change our behavior, he will still be coaching, and his death will have not have been in vain.

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