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Mark Attiah
Truth Be Told

Credit: Mark Attiah

My heartfelt condolences go out to all those who drafted Peyton Manning into their fantasy football teams. It seems that Manning’s season-ending neck injury is more formidable than an illustrious career, a sizable bank account and, most importantly, his and our desire for a comeback.

For those who aren’t aware, Peyton Manning, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, is suffering from a bulging disc in his cervical spine. The disc pushes up against nerves that run to the muscles in his arms and hands, making them weaker, which is not a winning formula for a quarterback. Manning underwent one surgery and then another, which put him out of the season indefinitely. Desperate to get back into the game he so loves, Manning underwent a third surgery — but not before doing something a little out of the ordinary.

Manning flew to Europe to undergo experimental stem-cell therapy. Pause. At first blush, you might see “stem-cell” and mistake this article for a politically charged bit about the right to life. No, the issue here is instead the word “experimental.”

Manning had to fly overseas to get the procedure done because it isn’t approved here in the United States. He probably paid an exorbitant amount of money without evidence indicating how well the procedure works or even how safe it is. The ability to engage in so-called “designer medicine” like this throws into sharp relief the widening health disparity between those who always have $90-million contracts and those do only when they’re fast asleep.

But should we fault him for this? After all, you can’t put a price on your health, and he should take any and all chances he has to get healthy for himself and his fans, right? Well, no, he shouldn’t.

Clinical trials are put into place in this country to assess the safety, efficacy, dosing and side effects of a new drug or therapy. The therapy is then compared to an existing standard of care to see which is more useful. These trials occur in multiple phases over the span of years and hundreds of subjects to determine a drug’s suitability for widespread use.

Even then, the process isn’t perfect. I’m sure you’ve seen the grainy commercials where someone in a suit tells you you’re entitled to sue everyone who has ever met the doctor who prescribed you a defective drug. A treatment that hasn’t been through the ringer has that much more of a chance of harming more than it helps.

Manning’s procedure involved using stem cells from his fat tissue and injecting them into his neck and bloodstream. This may cause harmful side effects that we don’t know about and sets a dangerous precedent. His fans may not know or think of this when, God forbid, they have back pain. But, if they want a fast track to pain relief, they might just remember that one treatment the Super Bowl-winning quarterback underwent. Those in positions of power and influence should treat their medical decisions just as they treat their words in the public sphere: very, very carefully. People are watching.

The future hall of famer and four-time National Football League Most Valuable Player isn’t the only one guilty of this. Penn bioethicist Arthur Caplan wrote an article in August for MSNBC lambasting Texas Gov. Rick Perry ® for undergoing a similar procedure for his back pain. Perry subsequently sang the praises of stem-cell therapy to the Texas Medical Board in hopes of increasing efforts to make advances in this area.

Anyone who has been through adolescence knows that people play copycat with objects of their admiration. Athletes, both centerpieces of American entertainment and pinnacles of physical ability, form a cornerstone of our society and a special place in our collective psyche. It’s only natural to see a Peyton Manning or a Michael Phelps become a spokesperson, a philanthropist or an unwitting voice in a national conversation that doesn’t necessarily relate to sports — just because we will listen to them. In effect, like any other public figure (if not more so), sports superstars’ actions are no longer just their own.

Manning sends the message to his followers that it’s okay to engage in unproven, potentially dangerous therapies for the love of the game. Truth be told, though, he should love himself enough first to not put his health, or anyone else’s, at risk.

Mark Attiah is a second-year medical student from Dallas, Texas. His email address is Truth Be Told appears every other Thursday.

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