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The Life

April 3, 2000
Close Call
ESPN The Magazine

If anyone out there is thinking about taking "nutritional" supplements without talking to a doctor first, don't. I took something without knowing what it was, and it almost killed me. A product advertised as a "sleep aid" -- and claiming to help muscles recover from exercise -- sent me into a seizure, caused me to lose bowel control and left me unable to breathe unaided. And that wasn't the scariest part. Waking up was.

Tom Gugliotta
Let's hope Googs cut up his GNC credit card.
I bolted uprights in a hospital bed in Portland, fighting for breath and almost choking on the tube in my throat. Doctors and nurses were saying, "Relax, don't try to breathe, let the machine do it." They were telling me not to breathe. I thought they'd given up on me.

Then it slowly registered that I was going to be all right. What took longer to register was how I got there, after I'd run up and down the court for the Suns in a Dec. 17 game against the Trail Blazers. The doctors who treated me are certain it was because I took an over-the-counter product that contained Gamma Butyrolactone -- GBL. It's been linked to several deaths, and it's an example of why laws regulating supplements need to be changed.

I'd been having trouble sleeping after games, staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning. A friend told me about a liquid supplement that might help, and sent me a bottle. The night in Portland was the second time I'd used it. Then, it was still legal. What happened next helped move the government to take it off the market.

After the game, I showered, had a soft drink, filled the dropper in the GBL bottle to 5 milliliters and took the stuff. I got on the team bus and called my wife, Nikki. As I talked, it felt like low voltage electricity was going through my body. I heard a humming noise in my head. the skin on my face started twitching. I was feeling a little loopy and queasy. That's how I imagine an OD would feel -- like I took a drug, but skipped passed any buzzed feeling and went straight to sick.

Nikki says I started babbling. I could tell I was passing out, and didn't want her to hear, so I tried to cut off the cell, but I guess I dropped it. Still on the line, Nikki hear my teammates yelling for an ambulance. The trainer started slapping my face, but my eyes kept rolling back and my chin dropped to my chest. Luckily, there was still and EMT crew around. As they were taking me from the bus to the ambulance, I started foaming at the mouth and shaking. That's what GBL can do to you. It knocks you out and slows your breathing, sometimes to the point of stopping it. That's what happened to me.

If we'd been on the team plane, without access to a respirator, I'd be dead. If I'd gone to sleep in a hotel, I never would have woken up. Another thing that helped save my life was Nikki's quick thinking. She called the wife of a teammate, Rex Chapman; Rex called Nikki minutes later. She told him about the supplement. The trainer found it in my bag and called ahead to the hospital.

As it was, I couldn't breathe on my own for five hours. I was completely unresponsive to any stimulus. They gave me a spinal tap to check for meningitis, but I was seizing. They nicked my spine before they got the needs rights. The spinal taps left me with horrible headaches. Luckily, I was okay after a couple of weeks.

I've learned since that, once ingested, GBL converts to something called gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB -- an illegal party drug that's been linked to date rapes. Congress recently toughened GBL controls. But that's too late for a lot of people. My wife and I have received letters from parents whose children took GBL -- some as nutritional supplement, some as a party drug and some who had it slipped into their drinks. Some didn't survive.

A lot of athletes have no clue how dangerous this stuff is. You figure, it's legal, it's herbal, it's safe. That's wrong. FDA people talked to me after my incident and said their hands are tied. The law was change din 1994, so manufacturers don't have to prove products safe before selling them. Now, a supplement has to be proven dangerous -- in other words, people have to get sick or die -- before it can be banned.

What's sad is the attitude of kids. After I collapsed, a Phoenix TV station talked with a bunch of teenage athletes who were taking all kinds of supplements without talking to a doctor. One said he's do whatever it takes to help him hit home runs. I thought to myself, we'll be reading about that kid. In the obituaries.

This article appeared in the April 3, 2000 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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