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Lawsuits: NFL Ignored Concussions Risks; Modern Family Strained; No Text Worth Dying For

Aired September 8, 2012 - 16:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Hello. Thanks for being with us. Lots to get to.

This woman here, Tiffany, she agreed to be a surrogate mother for her sister-in-law Natalie. We're calling it the new modern family. Well, now, it's time for the six-month checkup. I can tell you things are starting to get a little strained.

Also, texting behind the wheel. We talk about this a lot. In terms of safety, it's no different than driving with your eyes closed for five seconds. I'll tell you important news on how to break that habit.

But first, football under the microscope.

As you likely know, the NFL season kicked off this week and while I love football, I couldn't help but cringe when I see these big helmet- to-helmet collisions during games. There's mounting evidence about the long-term impact of those hits. We talk about this quite a bit on the show.

Just this week, a new study found that NFL players may have tripled the risk of death due to brain diseases like Alzheimer's and ALS. In recent years, more than 3,000 former players have filed lawsuits against the NFL and they say that for years, the league tried to play down or even cover up the long-term dangers.


GUPTA (voice-over): The change seems to happen overnight.

ELEANOR PERFETTO, WIDOW OF RALPH WENZEL: He didn't recognize where he was and he didn't recognize who people were.

GUPTA: One day, your spouse seems fine. The next day, a despairing, broken version of the same man.

PERFETTO: He was threatening. He was putting up his fist, pushing people away.

GUPTA: At first, Eleanor could barely believe the change in her husband, former NFL guard Ralph Wenzel.

PERFETTO: A door was closing.

GUPTA: Until she realized all the clues she had missed over the years.

PERFETTO: You start to see more of a blank expression kind of starting to happen there.

GUPTA: Blank stares, vanishing memories, anger brewing, all signs of dementia. And doctors told her most likely linked to the pummeling Wenzel had taken on the football field.

PERFETTO: This is a chronic, long-term, terminal illness that has changed our lives forever.

GUPTA: Perfetto was one of more than 3,000 former players and family members who have filed lawsuits against the NFL. They claim the league knew repeated blows to the head could cause long-term damage and fraudulently concealed it.

This lawsuit is about who knew what and when they knew it.

You see, the history here is important. Right around the time the first NFL games were played in the 1920s, a disease, dementia pugulistica, was uncovered in brains of boxers. Repeated blows to the head caused abnormalities, tangles to form in brain tissue. Even back then, researchers pondered could the same thing be happening in the brains of football players? It turns out an avalanche of recent studies showed similarities. But the question is, how does it happen?

Dr. ANN MCKEE, BEDFORD VA MEDICAL CENTER: All brains of either former athletes, former military veterans --

GUPTA: I asked Dr. Ann McKee, a specialist who studies the brains of athletes.

(on camera): What we're seeing here, is this definitely caused by blows to the head?

MCKEE: It's never been seen in any reported case except in a case of repeated blows to the head.

GUPTA (voice-over): It begins when the brain is jostled inside the skull. Neurons are stretched. Connections are damaged. And what follows is a furious effort by the brain to repair. In the short term the damage may be contained but over the long term tangles are left behind.

It's called CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The sentinel case, Mike Webster, a former Pittsburgh Steeler who committed suicide. In 2005, a little known pathologist, Dr. Benet Omalu (ph), along with others, published a paper in the journal "Neurology." That paper was about Webster's brain, which was riddled with tangles.

Now, a committee of doctors assembled by the NFL asked the journal to pull that paper. "The Journal" refused. Dr. Bailes works with Dr. Omalu.

(on camera): They asked the paper to be retracted because they didn't believe it, didn't think it was significant. What did you think of that?

DR. JULIAN BAILES, CO-DIRECTOR, NORTHSHORE NEUROLOGIST INSTITUTE: I think the scientific discourse demands everything be brought out and let people judge for themselves not hide it or retract it. But that was very early on. That was shocking and they probably did not want to believe it.

GUPTA (voice-over): Five years earlier, in 2000, the league's pension plan had written a letter to Webster's estate, saying multiple head injuries cause total and permanent disability that arose out of league football activities. Asked about the letter, an NFL spokesperson declined to comment.

PERFETTO: Him looking so healthy and young.

GUPTA: Eleanor Perfetto believes that her husband like Webster suffered with CTE. Dementia which led to his death in June looked eerily similar to that of other players who also died and were diagnosed with CTE.

Perfetto says she hopes the lawsuit will force the NFL to wake up and pay attention.

PERFETTO: They were very slow in recognizing this was a problem. There were a lot of players that were suffering out there.

GUPTA: In recent years, the NFL has made many rule changes to protect players. And the spokesperson maintains, quote, "Any allegation that the league sought to mislead players has no merit and stands in contrast to actions it took to better protect players."

Perfetto's hope that Wenzel's painful struggle will in the end mean something.

PERFETTO: The last 15 years of his life that were so difficult for him had a reason. That he made a difference.


GUPTA: Just last week, the NFL did file a motion to dismiss those cases, but on the heels of that the NFL is still researching this issue. In fact, just days ago, they announced they're donating $30 million to a new sports and health research program run by the National Institutes of Health.

Something else people have been asking me about -- Bill Clinton, specifically here he is giving his speech at the Democratic convention and some people noticed a little tremble in his hands. There it is there. Some people asked, is that a sign of some sort of medical condition?

I have asked about this a few times in the past. He's told me he does not have Parkinson's. The quiver is just a sign of normal aging or sometimes too much caffeine.

Next up, the ultimate gift, being a surrogate mom. It is a tough thing to go through. It gets even more complicated when you're having your sister-in-law's baby.


TIFFANY BURKE, SURROGATE FOR SISTER-IN-LAW'S BABY: I didn't know that it would have strain on the marriage or the kids or that I would be sick for so long.



GUPTA: For the past few months, we've been following the makings of what we're calling a real modern family. Take a look here. You've got Natalie on the left with her husband James. On the right there is James' sister Tiffany with her husband Sean. Now, Natalie can't carry another child, but she wanted one so Tiffany offered to help.

Well, now, Tiffany is six months along and she's carrying twins for her brother and sister-in-law. But as you might guess and as we expected, surrogacy is tough and this modern family is starting to get strained, especially for Tiffany who I'm about to talk with.

But, first, a look back.


BURKE: Today is August 29th and we are here for a six-month checkup. We're 24 weeks along already with the twins. So we get to do the ultrasound today. The A is down here and baby B up here. And you can distinctly feel when they're kicking and you can feel them from the outside now, too.

So baby B usually wakes and kicks baby A, until baby A wakes up and they do their dance inside and kick and move. Probably they'll wake up during the ultrasound.

NATALIE LUCICH: It's hard. It's hard not to feel grateful. It's a little tough sometimes. I mean, can't always be there for everything. But there are many more blessings that we have ahead of us and, you know, the hard times are -- everything is counting for something.


GUPTA: Tiffany, thanks so much for joining us.

I have to ask how you're feeling. The last time we spoke you were having quite a bit of nausea now and I think you're around 23 weeks of pregnancy. How are you doing?

BURKE: Still kind of the same. I get more relief in the afternoon but I'm still puking every day and still nauseous every day.

GUPTA: Is it surprising to you how hard it's been? I know that we talked a lot before even, you know, you started this whole process. Has it been surprising how taxing it's been on you and Sean in particular? BURKE: Yes. Absolutely. I thought going into this that the hardest part would be the birth and giving up the babies. You know, oh, maybe I'll feel sad after and that would be -- that is kind of what you think of when you think of a surrogate is -- how are they going to carry a baby to term and give the baby away? So I didn't really consider that oh, maybe I'll be much sicker than I've ever been before and I kept thinking if I were it wouldn't be that hard. I can handle it.

GUPTA: Right. And as far as -- I mean, there are a lot of sacrifices then I guess as a result of just not feeling well. I mean, you're a professional photographer for example for weddings. Are you able to work during this whole process?

BURKE: I am. I'm kind of like a person who just doesn't stop going and push through the best I can. So, I throw up before photo shoots or after. And there's been three that I've had to postpone but other than that I've done 27 regular sessions and seven weddings since I've become pregnant.

GUPTA: Wow. So you are trying to stay busy.

What about your own children or just even child care? I know you miss your kids. Is it harder to just help with them and their lives?

BURKE: It is. I guess that strikes a nerve with me. I'm just really an involved mom and so it's been really hard having to not be with them and not play with them and being sick and having to decide -- well, if I have any energy it has to go to work and, you know, because we need the income, so it's been definitely challenging.

The kids are -- we have two beautiful, great kids. They're 7 and 3. They're doing wonderful. But I still feel this guilt of I'm not with them as much. I'm not playing with them.

It's summer. I want to swim at the lake with them. That's definitely been probably the hardest part so far.

GUPTA: When you reflect on it you think about the fact that you started this whole endeavor. What has surprised you the most? Has anything given you pause and said, well, maybe I didn't quite think this through at all?

BURKE: Yes. I think that, you know, I would be lying to say oh, no. This is just what I thought it would be. And everything is peaches and cream. I think that there are definitely parts I didn't know it would have strain on marriage or the kids or that I would be sick for so long.

You know, but it still -- I get asked a lot, would I do this again? And I would. I'm not going to do this again for anybody else but would I repeat this knowing now how sick I am and how much I'm missing out and how much the kids are missing their mom? Yes. Because these babies here would never exist if it weren't for this tough decision.

GUPTA: So many considerations. As you point out things that were even impossible to think about or anticipate. But let me say you look really beautiful, Tiffany. I know it's been tough pregnancy so far and I think about you a lot and I can't wait to see these babies.

BURKE: Thank you.

GUPTA: We'll hope to check in with you again soon.

BURKE: Thank you. Thank you so much.

GUPTA: And next how to break one of the toughest habits there is: texting behind the wheel. I think everyone knows this is a bad idea but it seems like no one is willing to put that phone down. We take a closer look with some solutions. That's next.



POLICE OFFICER: It's funny the first thing I noticed about her was her shoes. Lying in the roadway in a large pool of blood, I noticed her shoes and I thought, this is a young girl. That's the first thing I thought when I saw this.

And at that point is when I noticed her cap and gown was still in her car. She was going to graduate the next day. It was just a really horrific scene all because of a senseless text message.


GUPTA: Mariah West is an 18-year-old who died in that car accident, just one day before her high school graduation. She is one of thousands of people of all ages who die because of distracted driving.

Mariah's mother Merry here with me now.

Thanks for joining us. You flew in to talk about this. I know this has become something that you're very passionate about.


GUPTA: Tell me a bit about your daughter, Mariah.

DYE: She was a very bubbly young lady, very vivacious, never met a stranger. Wanted to go to school at Georgia Tech and be a teacher. She wanted to make a difference in people's lives.

GUPTA: We're talking about one day, this happened one day before her high school graduation.

DYE: Yes.

GUPTA: They found her cap and gown even in the car.

DYE: Right.

GUPTA: I want to take a look specifically at the text that we're talking about here and she was responding to a text when her car veered off into oncoming traffic and there it is, "Where u at". That's what the text she received basically said. She was drafting a response, is that right?

DYE: Yes, there was about one letter that was saved as a draft.

GUPTA: So they went back and looked at the timing of things, when she looked at the text, when she started the draft.

DYE: Right. It all matched together.

GUPTA: Had you ever thought about this issue prior to this?

DYE: Absolutely, absolutely. We knew she had a problem. We did everything we could think of. We took her phone away for months at a time, showed her graphic e-mails with a man severed in half.

GUPTA: Oh my goodness.

DYE: We talked about it all the time and she would joke about the fact that, you know, stupid kids at schools who got in fender benders because they were texting. So she knew but suddenly she was a pro and thought she could handle it.

GUPTA: We saw the accident and we saw what happened to the car. What happens, it was brain injuries or what?

DYE: Yes. In the course of the car rolling, she was partially ejected and her head came between the car and the pavement and invaded the brain space and severed the optic nerves.

GUPTA: You know, people know that it's not a good idea to text and drive. I mean, the messages have been out there for sometime. One stat I found interesting, you've heard this but if someone who is texting and driving it is the equivalent of driving with your eyes closed for five seconds. Obviously if someone told you to drive with your eyes closed for five seconds, told me to do the same thing, you know, you'd say that's crazy.

DYE: Right.

GUPTA: You wouldn't do it.

But why do you think based on everything you've been learning and talking about that still happens so much?

DYE: I think people think they're invincible and they don't really accept -- you know, bad things happen to bad people I think is a lot of the mentality. It's not going to happen to me. And I'm so well- versed at this. You know, I can handle it.

What they don't understand is it just takes one time to make a mistake. And that can be the end of their life.

GUPTA: People again know about this issue? There have been campaigns where you pledge not to text and drive. DYE: Right.

GUPTA: And yet the numbers are still quite high. Have you found anything you feel really works especially among teenagers?

DYE: Well, I think when we show them a drama they go, wow. That's really impactful for the day. If you show them a real story, that was real impactful for the week. But when they meet the victims, that seems to have the greatest impact. You know, when they can talk to people who have dealt with it personally, then that takes it out of being that realm of make believe or just another TV show.

GUPTA: How do you -- is there a way to create a conversation? What you'd like I would imagine -- again I think about my own kids and I'm sure anybody watching now is thinking about their kids as well. You'd like to say someone is in the car that says, stop. Put it down. This is a bad idea. It could kill us.

DYE: Yes.

GUPTA: How do you think those conversations actually start?

DYE: They start around the dinner table. You know, you just have to keep talking to them. You have to do it in a way that's not saying, now, don't do this. You need to let them see the danger for themselves.

GUPTA: I've heard solutions about taking the phone, putting it in the glove box, even putting it in the trunk of your car. So, while you're driving you simply don't get on that phone. That obviously is, you know, going to be very effective but many people simply won't do that.

DYE: Right.

GUPTA: Do you feel that you've been able to have an impact?

DYE: I think absolutely. I think the awareness is growing. It's a shame that there had to be such -- so many losses. You know, I'm hearing accidental the time. Where we are from, there was another one this week.

GUPTA: Is that right?

DYE: He's a young man and he killed his brother because he was texting and driving.

GUPTA: There are different technologies emerging.

DYE: Yes.

GUPTA: Hopefully, some of them will come about in time to save more lives so they can actually measure just how fast a car is growing and try to disable the phone as part of that.

DYE: Yes. GUPTA: But again, I really appreciate you sharing your story about Mariah. I think it is so important for people to hear this. As you say, if they meet her as they just have now, then, you know, hopefully it'll make a difference.

DYE: That's what we're hoping for.

GUPTA: Thanks so much, Merry. Appreciate you coming in.

DYE: My pleasure.

GUPTA: And you can take the pledge as well to never Text and Drive. We should all do this. You can also learn more stories like Mariah's online. It's at


GUPTA: If you've been watching the U.S. Open these past few weeks, you may have noticed a familiar face on the court. Denise Castelli, that's her right there. She's one of our CNN Fit Nation triathletes and she's been getting her workout, it turns out, as a ball girl at the U.S. Open. She is, in fact, the first amputee to work as a ball girl on center court.

We'll tell you what? Nothing slows that woman down.

And speaking of triathlons, I, Denise, the rest of our Fit Nation triathlon team, we're going to be racing the Nautica Malibu Triathlon. We've been talking about this for sometime. But it is now next weekend. I think we're ready.

Join us live from California. We're going to be there before the race, right here on CNN.

"Chasing Life" today is about giving yourself a digital detox. First off, a couple questions. Do you spend a lot of time using your mobile phone? Do you constantly check for calls or texts or e-mails?

If so, there is a good chance you might suffer from something known as phantom vibration syndrome. Stick with me here. This is real. It has a name.

And when you think your phone is vibrating with a new alert when it actually isn't, that's what you're experiencing.

One study says this happens to 70 percent of those who use mobile phones. It's a sign as you might guess that you're simply too plugged in.

Before you shrug it off, there is a good chance those devices are also making it harder to sleep at night as well. They keep your brain stimulated even as your body is trying to shut down.

So here's the advice. Give your phone a rest every once in a while. Your brain will thank you for it. That's going to wraps things up for SGMD. You can stay connected with me at Let's keep the conversation going on Twitter as well @SanjayGuptaCNN.

Time now, though, to get a check of your top stories in "THE CNN NEWSROOM".