It was just a scratch. That was what Frank Gawronski and his family thought about the turf burn he received on his left elbow this summer while attending a football camp at UC Berkeley. A sophomore to be at Casa Grande High School, Gawronski, who aspires to be quarterback, would have competed for a starting position on defense this season. But when he scrapped some skin off his elbow at camp, it began an odyssey that left him sidelined for the season with more questions than answers. What he and his family didn’t know was that scrapes from sliding or falling on synthetic turf fields can, like any open wound, become infected with bacteria that can be resistant to many antibiotics. Staphylococcus and MRSA for Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus bacterium can cause infections that are difficult to treat in humans. They are most common in hospitals and can cause illness and, in some cases death in people who have compromised immune systems but there have been outbreaks in the ranks of professional and amateur athletics. Unlike concussions, where education and information abounds among all levels of football players, Gawronski and his family say they didn’t know about the dangers of the turf burns as they relate to staph infections. When he tried to play through what was later diagnosed as fever and chills associated with a staph infection, it got worse. Gawronski played in a few games this season, but has been sidelined the last several weeks and has even missed school as he has battled to recover from the effects of the illness. Last week, Gawronski missed tryouts for basketball and while he’s slowly getting stronger and expected to recover, it has not been an easy few months for the teenager who, according to his family, has struggled with having to be on the sidelines for an injury no one can see – unlike last year when he missed time due to a broken collarbone. “It’s been very, very hard for him to understand all of this,” said Frank’s mother, Krista Gawronski, who is also the co-founder and president of Fabulous Women, a nonprofit that raises money for various local causes. “But it’s been hard for all of us.” Krista Gawronski’s first priority was getting her son diagnosed, treated and on the road to recovery. The second has been to try to get answers to all the family’s questions, especially as it relates to the artificial turf field where he suffered the initial injury. Synthetic fields have been tied to staph infections for more than a decade, since an outbreak of so-called antibiotic resistant bacterial infections among athletes on the professional and amateur levels. But after years of study, experts now say the fields themselves aren’t the cause of the infections, but rather the fact that team athletes by nature are surrounded by conditions that are friendly to the growth of bacteria. Improved hygiene has played an enormous role, say coaches and experts, because the sooner the injury is cleaned and covered, the less likely it will fester and become infected. “These bacterias are everywhere, part of every day life. It’s on our skin and in our food and on every door knob we touch,” said Dr. Dan Parker, associate professor of sports medicine at UC Davis. “For most healthy kids, it’s not going to be a problem. If it gets into the bloodstream through an open cut or scrape and it’s not treated, it will eventually let you know.” Those symptoms can begin with sores or boils that blister and don’t seem to get better over time and, as in Frank Gawronski’s case, cause fever, chills and even serious pain. Gawronski’s story, according to doctors who treat these cases, is not unusual in that some of the initial signs were missed. It’s why his mom has decided to speak up about it. “We’re not trying to make this into something it’s not. We are certainly not worried about Frank playing on artificial turf fields,” she said. “But I think it’s important that parents understand what can happen if these burn type of injuries aren’t properly treated. I didn’t know this could happen. I didn’t know to look out for it.” Local health officials say they don’t keep records on the antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections except if they are serious enough to require hospitalization or death. They have not seen a rise in these types of illnesses in the county, a fact they partially attribute to better hygiene. “The scrapes and abrasions give these bugs a way into the body. If we provide enter, it’s going to take that opportunity,” said Dr. Karen Holbrook, the county’s deputy health officer. “The injuries may be more prevalent on the artificial fields but it’s also true that they can happen on grass as well. A few years ago there was a big push in education about keeping the wounds clean and covered and antibacterial wipes I think are now fairly common in locker rooms and gyms.” Artificial turf fields are said to be cheaper to install and maintain because, unlike real grass, they do not need to be irrigated. They are in wide use throughout the country and in California, where water is an increasingly scarce resource. Roughly half the high schools in Sonoma County have artificial playing or practice fields and Casa Grande is installing a synthetic turf next year. St. Vincent de Paul High School has had a turf field for the past three years and the City of Petaluma operates one at Lucchesi Park and will install three new turf fields in its Washington Park project. While there is anecdotal evidence that athletes get more scrape or turf burn injuries from contact with the synthetic fields, experts say the athletes’ environments – sweaty, hot locker rooms, sharing towels, showers and soap – are more to blame when injuries become infected. A possibly bigger concern, say the experts, is the chemical makeup of the newer turf fields, which are designed to have a softer impact that the first fake grass fields which were basically plastic grass laid over a base of concrete. Experts say there are as many different manufacturers as there are ways to make the newer surfaces, but most are made out of decomposed rubber tires that are pulverized in to a material that’s commonly called “crumb rubber.” The material is spread between plastic blades of grass and the little black pellets can get into the clothes — and some parents and experts worry — open wounds of the kids who play sports on them. Recent reports have cited anecdotal evidence that a soccer coach in Washington State had uncovered where nearly 40 soccer players were diagnosed with cancer, almost all of them were goalkeepers, a position that requires a lot of diving to the turf. While many studies exist, there is not much consensus on whether the cancer is caused by exposure to the crumb rubber. The Synthetic Turf Council, an industry trade organization, cites 14 studies it says support their contention that the fields are safe. Still, UC Davis’ Parker says the jury is still out. “My sister’s daughter is a soccer goalie and when she saw the report in Washington, she called me to ask if it was safe to let her continue to play on the synthetic turf,” he said. “It’s not yet clear but it certainly concerns me. There are chemicals in the tires which are chemicals that you do not want your children to be exposed to. Whether they are transfered or not, it’s too early to tell. The fields haven’t been around long enough.” But for the Gawronski family, there are already lessons learned. “We wanted to open a dialogue about this issue not for people to feel sorry for Frank, but so other parents could be aware of what could happen if these wounds aren’t taken care of immediately,” she said. “We don’t want anyone else to have to go through this. It’s scary.” (Elizabeth M. Cosin can be reached at email@example.com)It was just a scratch. That was what Frank Gawronski and his family thought about the turf burn he got on his left elbow this summer while attending a football camp at UC Berkeley.
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