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NFL Player's Brain Damage; Blind But Hoping for a Cure; Science of Food

Aired April 2, 2011 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta reporting from Los Angeles. Welcome to the program.

First up: A former football star with a 10-year pro career, a trip to the Super Bowl, an American Dream, until he suddenly ended it all. What happened? Well, his wife is speaking out for the first time. It's part of my investigation to learn the truth about concussions and their impact on the brain.

And this guy, you may remember him as a teen actor. But you may not know that as he grew older, he went blind. He did become a lawyer. He worked at the Supreme Court even. And now, he's looking for a way to see again.

Plus, whether or not you know your way around the kitchen, I'm guessing you probably never looked at food the way this man does.


NATHAN MYHRVOLD, EX-MICROSOFT CTO: We have a great trick for making the perfect hamburger. Our favorite method is with the torch.


GUPTA: At one point, he was chief technology officer for Microsoft. Now, he's created an amazing book about science and food, Nathan Myhrvold.

Let's get started.


GUPTA: First, though, the sad fall of Shane Dronett. He's the defensive tackle of the 1998 Atlanta Falcons, a team that took the city by storm. They called themselves the Dirty Birds. They were fast, they were fierce, they were in your face and they soared all the way to the Super Bowl. Those were the good times.

But after 10 years in the National Football League, Shane Dronett fell on some pretty hard times, deep depression, wild mood swings. And then in 2009, he killed himself, leaving behind a wife and two daughters.

Could the game that he loved so much have been partly to blame? It's part of our investigation of our investigation right here on SGMD, "Hard Hits."


GUPTA (voice-over): On the field, Shane Dronett was a typical lineman, liked, smart, ferocious and big.

JAMAL ANDERSON, ATLANTA FALCONS TEAMMATE: He's a big, big, big old -- I said something else. I was like, oh, my God, he's huge.

Shane had a like look about him. He wasn't like a mean guy, you know, good smile, spoke to people. But you knew not to mess with him.

GUPTA: His wife, Chris, says he lived and breathed football.


GUPTA: In 1992, Dronett's dream became real, a real job as a pro-football player -- and as any player will tell you, that job description includes getting hit, often. Over a 10-year career, Dronett suffered lots of concussions.

C. DRONETT: He would say I wish someone would split my head open with an ax and relieve the pressure.

GUPTA: At Boston University, researchers say repeated head injuries over time can lead to a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE. Those brown stains are the signature, damaged tissue causing a kind of dementia.

This is a brain of a 45-year-old NFL player. It looks a lot like this 70-year-old brain with dementia.

DR. ANN MCKEE, BEDFORD VA MEDICAL CTR: To see this kind of changes we're seeing in 45-year-old is basically unheard of.

GUPTA: And researchers say they found those same telltale signs in the brain of Shane Dronett. Of course, he and his family couldn't see inside. They all knew was that a young man, just 32 when he retired, was behaving strangely.

HAYLEY DRONETT, DAUGHTER OF SHANE DRONETT: Very like, scared. Like everyone is against him and like people are after him.

GUPTA: In 2006, his family thought they found the reason for Shane's unorthodox behavior, a benign brain tumor. It was removed. Friends and family thought he was going to be OK.

ANDERSON: Slowly, but surely, Shane is coming back. Shane is coming back. Shane is coming back. Then, all of a sudden, he's gone, you know?


GUPTA: Christine Dronett, Shane's widow, said she wants to tell the story so other people in her position won't feel alone. She met me with her daughter Hayley.


GUPTA: Tell me about Shane. What kind of guy was he?

C. DRONETT: He was a fantastic dad, great father, wonderful husband.

GUPTA: How did you guys meet?

C. DRONETT: We met at the University of Texas. We met through mutual friends.

GUPTA: Always a football player?

C. DRONETT: Always a football player. He played since he was 5 years old. So, his dream was to play in the NFL.

GUPTA: Did he play in pain?

C. DRONETT: He did. He played through -- during one game, he tore his ACL and finished the game.

GUPTA: When you saw him, for example, take a hit to the head, looked like it was a concussion -- what was going through your mind at that time when you saw that happen?

C. DRONETT: I could tell when there were times where he would be slow getting up and kind of try to shake it off and get back in there. After the game, he would say, oh, I got my bell rung today. But, you know, that wasn't even an option to come out.

GUPTA: Did he ever think about not playing or staying out a game or something because of a concussion. Never crossed his mind?

C. DRONETT: No. Shane didn't come out of games because he always said that NFL players are so expendable. And if you don't go out, if you're out there, the next guy will be.

GUPTA: What was he like when he was at home, retired?

H. DRONETT: I just noticed his personality was fading. He was acting strange and vulnerable and stuff.

GUPTA: What was the first thing you noticed, Chris, do you remember?

C. DRONETT: The first thing, we were in the house it was that night and he woke up in the middle of the night and started screaming and told everyone to run out of the house. He thought that someone was blowing up our house. And it was frightening. It was very frightening.

And then, like a couple weeks later, he said something else out of the ordinary. Then it became more and more frequent.

GUPTA: How frequently?

C. DRONETT: It became to where it was almost every day.

GUPTA: What sort of things would you see?

H. DRONETT: He would be like very, like, scared like that. Like everyone is against him.

GUPTA: Sort of paranoid?

H. DRONETT: Very paranoid. And he would just have this stare that was kind of scary, like -- and he was just stare out into space or like stare at a person for a long time.

GUPTA: Did you ever think about dimension or chronic traumatic encephalopathy at the time?

C. DRONETT: I didn't know about -- I mean, I had heard of dimension, but I -- no. In the 36 --

GUPTA: It didn't make sense to you?

C. DRONETT: There's no explanation for someone in the mid-30s to just lose their mind like that. I mean, he hadn't been like that before. So, I was searching for an answer.

It wasn't just depression. It was -- he was suffering from much more than that.

GUPTA: They talk about what chronic traumatic encephalopathy, having memory loss, having rage issues and having depression. Is that what you saw?


GUPTA: Does it make you more angry that it was the game?

H. DRONETT: It upsets me like how he could change so young when I'm so young.

GUPTA: We know what he did. He ended up taking his own life. I mean, could you have ever predicted that?

C. DRONETT: I never -- I never would have thought that. He was always so full of life. Even his darkest moments, I just still never imagine that he would do that.

H. DRONETT: He was just the best dad in the world.


GUPTA: Coming up, more of my conversation with Christine Dronett.

Stay with SGMD.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

I have been talking with Christine Dronett. She's the widow of former NFL star Shane Dronett who killed himself in 2009. Now, she had his brain studied by researchers at the Boston University who are looking at long term effects of brain injuries, especially in athletes. They now say that Dronett, who was pretty young, did show signs of brain damage and a kind of dementia.


GUPTA: So, what happened?

C. DRONETT: Well, Hayley and I had gone, I told him to visit a friend of hers and her mother. We had gone skiing. It was a long weekend. And he called us 100 times a day, you know, wondering where we were and, you know, we would tell him, we're in Utah. You know, we're at the Smith's house. You know, here's the number.

And he just didn't believe it. And he thought people were driving around the house. He was wondering who had been following him that day. So, it was very scary.

So, when we were flying back into town, he was supposed to pick us up from the airport and he didn't. The next morning, I was getting ready to leave. I was in the bedroom and I came out of the hallway and I saw the gun. I ran out the front door.

And as soon as I put my hand on the front door, I heard it. And I didn't know for sure. I was too scared to go in to see, so I ran across the street. And so -- but it was so sad. There's no way to have known he would have one that.

I just hope that people step back and, you know, take a look and evaluate when they are going out on the field and what they will do if they have a concussion. I'm just hoping that everyone from the player to the trainer to the coach, I just would like for all them to be on the same page.

GUPTA: Hayley, do you think it's possible to make football safe?

H. DRONETT: Safer, but not safe.

C. DRONETT: I think they can make it officer, but it will never be completely safe sport. I mean, the whole game would have to change. I agree with the big fines they are giving, that they started this year for the very unnecessary hits. I know a lot of the players are against that. But they are young and they haven't seen what I have seen.

GUPTA: What would you tell those players?

C. DRONETT: I would tell them what I went through, what Shane went through and what other people that I know that experienced (ph) and have gone through, and then let them make that decision because I feel like they are making -- they are making their statements without being educated.

GUPTA: Why talk about this?

C. DRONETT: Hopefully to help other family members that are going through this. I keep in touch with a lot of the players and players' wives that, you know, Shane played with. And they are getting older. And, you know, there's a lot going on. I mean a lot of these players are experiencing things that are worrisome.


GUPTA: And it's just relationship between concussions and possible dementia that people are really starting to study and we're going to certainly follow here on SGMD.

I got another disturbing story this week as well -- a deadly mistake in Alabama. Get this -- at least nine people have died after getting food supplements from I.V. bags that were contaminated with a rare bacteria. Now, the bags were mixed at a compounding pharmacy and then used at six different hospitals.

Alabama health officials and the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are investigating this. Now, they say they have identified the supplier and none of the bags are still out there.

Other scary news as well: the CDC is warning about a superbug spreading in nursing homes and hospitals. Now, it's a dangerous bacteria with a name that's a real twister, CRKP or carbapenem- resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae. It's now been seen in 35 states. Antibiotics, as it turns out, are really no match for it. Now, it's not usually fatal but some patients have died from this infection.

Now, coming up, you might remember Isaac Lidsky. He's one of the main actors on the latest version of "Saved by the Bell." He's also a new father of triplets. He'll talk about how he's adapted to a rare condition that cost him his eyesight.

Stick around.


GUPTA: Welcome back to SGMD, joining you from Los Angeles on a spectacular day outside here.

You know, sometimes, it seems every person around here dreams of breaking into the movies or into television. Isaac Lidsky, well, he dreamed it and he did it as a teenager.

But, you know, acting wasn't his real goal. That actually came after leaving Hollywood. And he didn't miss a beat, even after a rare condition left him legally blind.


ISAAC LIDSKY, ATTORNEY: All right. Finish it up.

GUPTA (voice-over): Isaac Lidsky's newest job is learning to take care of his three new beautiful babies. That's a challenge for him because he can't see his children. Lidsky has a retinitis pigmentosa. It's a rare form of blindness that progresses over time. He got the diagnosis when he was 13, soon after landing a role on TV's "Saved by the Bell: The New Class."



LIDSKY: Lisa hasn't won in 10 years. If you can make money losing, we'd be millionaires.


LIDSKY: I loved acting. I love being on a set. And, you know, it's just exciting.

GUPTA: But acting wasn't his dream. Law school was.

LIDSKY: As I really started experiencing vision loss in college, it was more the nuisance than a disability.

GUPTA: Undeterred, he got into Harvard Law School and made it to the Supreme Court. He clerked for retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, as well as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

LIDSKY: It's hard to anticipate the experience of slowly losing your vision and then, you know, living as a blind person.

GUPTA: Now at 31, he's legally blind.

LIDSKY: Right now, I'm sort of dealing with light and dark, maybe the occasional sort of shape.

GUPTA: While Lidsky can't overcome his blindness, he hasn't let it stop him from doing what he wants to do.

LIDSKY: With things like a walking cane, screen-reading software. It really doesn't slow me down in any practical sense.

GUPTA: This young lawyer hopes that one day, people like him will see again, which is why he started Hope for Vision to raise awareness and money for research.

LIDSKY: At this point in my life, really, it's - it's wanting o see my children. That motivates me to continue to work to overcome this challenge. I want more than ever to find a treatment or a cure.


GUPTA: Now, this disease affects roughly one in 4,000 people. And researchers at the University of Miami have found the gene now which causes the eye condition in Isaac's family. But as of yet, still no cure.

But, Isaac, thanks for sharing your story. We wish you the very best.

I want to show you photos here. This is fascinating stuff. You're going to see food like you've never seen it before.

And wait until you meet the chef. His name is Nathan. He's next, right after the break.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD from sunny Los Angeles. A beautiful day out here.

Nathan Myhrvold, he isn't your average guy, not even your average multimillionaire. He didn't just get a job at Microsoft. He was Microsoft's first chief technology officer.

He didn't just get into grilling. He won top prizes at the world championship of barbecue. He's a wildlife photographer, a volcano explorer. He's an amazing guy.

And then, on top of it all, he decided to write -- a cookbook of all things, six volumes, more than 2,400 pages. It costs more than $600. And it will open your eyes in every way.


NATHAN MYHRVOLD, AUTHOR, "MODERNIST CUISINE": When I was 9 years old, I announced to my mother I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner. I went to the library and got this huge pile of books, and by that, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner. And it wasn't very good by standards today, but while I was a senior vice president at Microsoft, I actually took a leave of absence from Microsoft to go to a chef school in France.

I've always been interested in science as well as I've always been interested in food. Chefs have been turning to science as an inspiration. The classic recipe says: do this, do this, do this. It doesn't tell you why you're doing this, this, this. It just says do it.

When you start doing brand new techniques and you start going outside the realm of what a traditional recipe does, it really helps to have intuition and know what you're doing. And I think it's also interesting to know what you're doing even if you're following a traditional recipe.

The way heat is conducted both inside food, and the way you bring heat to food is really quite interesting. There's lots of different ways to do it. Whether you're doing it by conduction, that means you put something -- something very hot, that's how pan works; or convection, which is what you work in deep fat frying or boiling; or radiation, which is how it works in a broiler.

One of the things that we do a lot in the book is we have what we call the cut away picture where we have sliced through the pot, the pan, sliced through a microwave oven, and then we show food in the middle of being cooked so that we can describe how it's cooking and all of the processes that go on. And we've done this for dozens of different things.

Water is the basis of most cooking. Water acts very strangely when you freeze it or boil it. When you boil water, it increases in volume by a factor of about 1,600. So, a drop of water becomes like a quart size amount of steam.

That's how popcorn works, by the away. The tiny amount of water inside a popcorn kernel causes it to explode. And the reason popcorn explodes is because a popcorn kernel has a tough shell on the outside.

Well, we wanted to show that some of these techniques, many of which were developed at these very high end, exotic restaurants don't need to be applied only to exotic food. In fact, you could apply those techniques to hamburgers or pizza or almost anything else.

We have a great trick for making the perfect hamburger. We want to cook the burger in a way that doesn't overcook the interior. So, we cooked the burger sous vide, which means you put it in a bag. We don't seal the bag when you do that because if you seal the bag, the vacuum compresses the burger more than we like it compressed.

Well, then you need to brown the outside. And our favorite method is with the torch. But the other method that works really great is you get some liquid nitrogen. Now, that liquid nitrogen is not a common household thing, but we cook with it a lot. You drop the hamburger and liquid nitrogen for between 30 seconds and a minute.

Now, this gets the burger really cold, it freezes the outside, and then you take it and deep fat fry it. And when you put the burger in the fryer, it makes the outside perfectly crisp. But because we've frozen the edge, it does that without cooking the side.

In this case, you're trying to make a better burger.


GUPTA: Thanks for watching, everybody. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta from Los Angeles.

More news on CNN starts right now.