November 11, 2019

This football player became a doctor—then had to quit because of a brain injury

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Sept. 21, 2020.

    T.J. Abraham worked as an obstetrician-gynecologist at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital for years, but at age 42, he had to end his career because of a brain injury that developed likely from years of playing football, Michael Powell reports for the New York Times.

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    A life of football

    Abraham played football in high school and then attended Duquesne University, where he played for another three years, Powell reports.

    Abraham was an offensive lineman, a position that led to him hitting his head against other players' helmets frequently. "I probably got my bell rung 70 times," Abraham said.

    Even in practices, Abraham said many of the drills and games were designed to cause a head clash, Powell reports. Abraham recalled a game called "bull in the ring," in which the players would form a circle and a player would step into the middle, shuffling his feet and acting like a bull. Then, players in the circle would take turns running at the "bull" in the middle, ramming into each other.

    These practices got even more difficult in college, Abraham said, as coaches "wanted to see who was not afraid to hit and get hit."

    But football didn't end up being Abraham's career, Powell reports. In college, Abraham distinguished himself as a "top student," and he went on to become a doctor. According to Powell, Abraham delivered roughly 3,000 babies in his career and had the ability to "make a nervous expectant mother grin."

    A brain disease

    But around seven years ago, Abraham, now 42, said he started noticing his temper would begin to flare for no reason, and his memory and judgment became inconsistent. He would forget the names of nurses and patients and lost his pager and hospital badge.

    For years, Abraham tried to ignore his memory problems, which he initially attributed to stress, Powell reports.

    To compensate for the issues, Abraham filled his phone with scores of reminders and downloaded apps to remember which antibiotics to prescribe or which birth control pills to recommend, Powell reports.

    But over time, the issues grew worse. "I had been lying to the nurses and tell them I had to pee so that I could go and look up how to finish a surgery," he said. "Finally I said enough. No more."

    After meeting with a number of doctors, Abraham was diagnosed with neurodegenerative dementia. "When you hear the words 'no cure' and 'you're only going to get worse,' well, that is tough," Abraham said. "There is no light at the end of the tunnel. This was not supposed to be my life."

    Abraham's doctors agreed that football was likely the source of Abraham's problems, Powell reports, and that there was a strong possibility that after he dies, it would be determined that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated hits to the head, and one found in the brains of many football players, typically posthumously, according to Powell.

    On Oct. 29, Abraham testified at a New York State Assembly hearing on a proposed bill that would ban tackle football for children ages 12 and under, Powell reports.

    "I do not want to see anyone lose what I've lost or experience this disease," Abraham's written testimony read. "I strongly urge you to ban tackle football at the age of 12 and younger in the state of New York."

    Abraham said he continues to struggle with his memory, and even remembering major life milestones can be difficult. "I remember nothing about the birth of my daughter," he said. "I remember nothing about my wedding. To know that I said things to hurt people, it's like when you get drunk and you wake up and 'what the hell?'"

    Abraham added, "My daughter asks me: 'Daddy, is your brain getting better?' And my heart breaks because I know the answer is no" (Powell, New York Times, 10/28).

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