As Wilton Speight lay on the field, sacked and then hit by a second Purdue defender, his parents urgently made their way toward the locker room.
Bobby and Martha Speight, worried about their son, could not have anticipated what would transpire over the next few hours, when they thought the Michigan quarterback’s potentially serious injury was not treated with the necessary urgency.
Wilton Speight suffered three fractured back vertebrae in that game in West Lafayette, Ind., on Sept. 23. He has not played since.
Two days after the game, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh spoke at length about issues that concerned him regarding Purdue: the lack of adequate cooling in the locker room, limited shower space and his disappointment in the medical facilities at Ross-Ade Stadium. Harbaugh described the table in the visitor’s locker room used for injured players as something “from the ’20s” and said he was disappointed that Speight had to be transported from the stadium for an X-ray, and also that a brace was not provided.
The University of Michigan raised Harbaugh’s concerns at the Oct. 11 meeting of Big Ten athletic directors, said UM athletic director Warde Manuel. He said other schools responded favorably to continuing the discussion, although Manuel would not describe the specific nature of the talks. The Big Ten did not respond to a request for comment.
Tom Schott, Purdue’s senior associate athletics director for communications, replied to Harbaugh’s complaints by saying the university’s medical facilities were similar to those at other Big Ten schools. Schott reiterated the athletic department’s stance when contacted by The Detroit News for this story, saying: “We stick with our original statement and are looking forward to being engaged in continued conversations as they relate to setting standards for visiting teams.”
Bobby and Martha Speight do not participate in interviews about any of their sons’ athletics careers, but they felt it was important to share what transpired to help other parents arm themselves with knowledge of medical facilities and care provided at different stadiums.
“What an absolute train wreck,” Bobby Speight said of the experience.
‘It was dark, dingy, dirty’
As soon as they saw Wilton injured on the field, stadium police helped them get from their Ross-Ade Stadium seats to be with their son.
“Wilton gets hit and didn’t move for a little while, which is a parent’s worst nightmare,” Bobby Speight said. “The police took us down but were unable to open the door. Someone who appeared to be a member of the food staff realized what was going on and let us in. When that door opened, even in high school I had never been in a visiting locker room that bad. It was dark, dingy, dirty.”
There was no capability to take X-rays in the stadium. Purdue’s original statement said it made clear that “basic X-ray is available within our athletic footprint and more sophisticated capabilities are located two blocks away, similar to the arrangements at many other schools.”
Michigan and Michigan State have full X-ray capabilities at their stadiums, and they also provide police escorts if a player needs to be transported to and from the hospital. It’s not clear why Speight wasn’t transported directly to a hospital by ambulance.
Instead, Wilton sat in the front seat of a van provided by Purdue and driven by a student. The Speights, two medical trainers, a doctor and Thai Trinh, an orthopedic sports medicine fellow at Michigan, piled into a van to be transported to the student health clinic, about two blocks from the stadium.
“We take off with no escort,” Bobby Speight said. “We can’t get through because there are barricades up and (the van driver is) directing people to move them.”
They reached the Purdue University Student Health Center and headed downstairs.
“They take us in the basement,” Bobby Speight said. “It’s very dimly lit. Halfway down the hall, there’s a (radiology) technician. Wilton is in (partial) uniform and still wearing cleats, and she asks Wilton his name. The (van driver) says he needs an X-ray. (The technician) looks at me and says, ‘I need your insurance card.’”
That’s when Trinh stepped in, Speight said. NCAA bylaws require member institutions to provide student-athletes insurance for medical expenses related to athletic injuries.
The Michigan doctors requested several X-rays, and there was a short delay because of issues putting the X-ray requests in the computer system. The technician was able to get the pictures, but transmission to a satellite facility failed, making it impossible for the Michigan doctors to examine the X-rays on a high-resolution screen. They thought they could miss diagnosing even the smallest of fractures on a lower-resolution version.
Michigan’s team doctors decided Speight should be transported to a local hospital, but the Purdue officials didn’t know which hospital to send them to, Bobby Speight said.
Trinh requested a local EMS take the group. A volunteer rescue team was the only option available, as full-time EMS units were dispatched elsewhere, Speight said he was told.
“And we waited 20 minutes for the rescue squad team,” he said. “At that point, Wilton says he has tingling in his legs and is in substantial pain. The EMT riding in the back of the ambulance asks us if we need an IV or vital monitoring and Trinh replied, ‘No, but we need him stable and immobile. This is a back injury.’ We stop at a light, and the Michigan doctor asks how long is it going to take, and (the EMT) said 30 to 45 minutes on game day.
“Our doctor asked him, ‘Couldn’t we please turn on the siren and make better time?’ And (the rescue squad member) said, ‘Don’t you get smart with me. You said this is a non-vital trip.’ Our doctor said, ‘I don’t care what I told you, this boy has tingling in his legs. Turn the siren on and go.’
“I about wanted to blow a gasket on this guy.”
Trinh declined comment for this story.
‘There was no urgency at all’
The rescue squad reached the local hospital, and the Michigan doctors said they needed a CT scan to be able to decide whether Speight could travel back to Ann Arbor or if he needed to stay there.
The head emergency room physician said he didn’t know when they would be able to get to the scan because there were several trauma cases already waiting, but they were able to fulfill the Michigan doctors’ requests.
The Speights credit Trinh for handling much of the conversation with the physicians and facilitating transportation. He also secured something akin to a back brace to stabilize Speight, although the hospital did not have one available. An ambulance that happened to be at the stadium transported to the hospital the Kendrick Extrication Device (KED), a board used to extract injured individuals from car accidents. Speight was strapped to the board.
The Michigan doctors asked for a police escort to get back to the stadium, but were told that was not available until after the game. Purdue did provide transportation for the Michigan group to meet the team at the airport, and they all traveled together back to Ann Arbor, including Wilton.
“There was no urgency at all,” Bobby Speight said of the experience.
Urgency when there’s a possibility of a spine injury is critical, according to Dr. Brad Ahlgren, a spine specialist and part of Michigan Orthopaedic & Spine Surgeons in Rochester Hills. He said the process should have been handled more efficiently and, most importantly, Speight should have been in a brace as early as possible, even before the diagnosis was made.
“In that situation, because he gets up and he walks off the field, obviously, if you know he’s got a broken vertebrae, then you put him in a collar, you put him on a backboard and take him out that way, but he gets up and walks off,” Ahlgren said. “We’d put him in a collar relatively quickly, because at that point in time, you’re just not sure, and he’s maybe saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. I think this hurts more than I expected it to,’ so you just immobilize in a collar.
“The CT scan (at the hospital) is going to be the key. We would leave him in the neck brace the whole time typically, and then get the CT scan to figure out then what you have to do.”
Had Speight suffered a dislocation and not received immediate treatment, he could have suffered nerve issues.
After arriving back in Ann Arbor, he was fitted for what he told his father was his “turtle shell” brace he wore for two weeks.
‘Fine in the long run’
Bobby Speight said when his sons were being recruited, he never would have considered exploring the medical staff and medical care provided by a university. Now?
“I would cross off a school without a high-end medical program,” he said.
Speight is encouraged the Big Ten athletic directors have opened discussions of how to improve visitor locker room facilities and the handling of injury situations.
“I know Wilton is going to be fine in the long run,” he said. “Hopefully this will change some things in the Big Ten. I don’t want my kids to get hurt again, but if it does happen, I hope it happens in Ann Arbor.”