At the 2015 Law Day Luncheon, presented by the San Joaquin County Bar Association and Bar Foundation, Dr. Bennet Omalu warned of the hidden dangers to the health and lives of professional football players, and Law Day Award recipient Hellen Ellis praised the efforts of those involved in the collaborative courts.
Instituted in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower, Law Day celebrates the role of law in American Society. At this year’s luncheon, San Joaquin County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Bennet Omalu recounted his discovery of the degenerative brain condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
Dr. Omalu was born in Nigeria. His father, himself orphaned at three years old, taught Dr. Omalu that “knowledge is an insurmountable asset that can do all things” and taught him to use his talents to enhance the lives of others. Dr. Omalu came to Seattle with $250 to his name and started building a life for himself in the United States.
While working as a medical examiner in Pittsburgh, PA, Dr. Omalu performed an autopsy on Mike Webster, a hall-of-fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs known as “Iron Mike.” Dr. Omalu expected to discover damage to Webster's brain tissue but was perplexed to find a normal-looking brain. He spent nearly every night over the next six months studying slides of Mr. Webster’s brain tissue under a microscope on his living room coffee table.
“Luckily, I was single at the time,” Dr. Omalu quipped. He concluded that the condition exhibited by Webster’s brain was as yet undescribed, and named the disorder “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” abbreviated to CTE.
Dr. Omalu also described efforts by the National Football League to discredit his findings, which were confirmed by examination of brain tissue from several other former NFL players, including Junior Seau. Dr. Omalu said that he had fled a culture of corruption in Nigeria, only to find it right here when he confronted the NFL with his discovery of CTE in former players. Dr. Omalu’s story will be chronicled in the upcoming movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith.
Dr. Omalu described efforts by the National Football League to discredit his findings, which were confirmed by examination of brain tissue from several other former NFL players, including Junior Seau.
Dr. Omalu encouraged the legal community to give a voice to players like “Iron” Mike Webster, who never realized that the amnesia, depression, and dementia he suffered before his death at the age of 50 were caused by his career in the NFL.
Dr. Omalu also cautioned that the diagnosis and prevalence of CTE is likely on the rise, as the condition has since been discovered in military veterans, coal miners, and others whose professions involve repeated trauma to the head. Some studies also point to an increased prevalence of CTE among inmate populations, suggesting a possible link between CTE and criminal activity.
The audience next heard from Helen Ellis, this year’s Law Day Award recipient. Ms. Ellis has worked tirelessly in San Joaquin’s collaborative courts since their formation, in addition to her continued charity work with the Child Abuse Prevention Counsel and organizations devoted to help San Joaquin County’s homeless population. A Stockton native who grew up in Salinas, Ms. Ellis worked picking strawberries in her youth, before attending Edison High School and the University of the Pacific. She married Stockton attorney Albert Ellis in 1984.
Ms. Ellis expressed her gratitude to the San Joaquin County’s judges, court staff, and legal professionals for recognizing the value of treatment programs and their place in the justice system as part of the comprehensive rehabilitation efforts provided by the collaborative courts. She acknowledged that her work can be discouraging at times, but finds happiness in the successes of others.
“I can’t express the joy my clients give me when they succeed,” she said. “They give my life purpose.”