Remembering Dr. Michael E. King and Exploring CTE

Dr. Michael E. King was a distinguished Winston-Salem, North Carolina sports-medicine physician and orthopedic surgeon for over three decades, loving husband, devoted father of four children and one step-daughter, and caring brother for four siblings. To many people, everything seemed perfect, but Dr. King was suffering both physically and mentally.

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Dr. King in 2008

On October 7, 2011, Dr. King tragically took his own life at his home in Midway, NC at the age of sixty-five. After years of playing youth, high school and college football, Dr. King had suffered through a lifetime of both physical and mental pain and in 2012, his family learned that he had suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.

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King family in 1996

Over a short series of blogs, I will delve into Dr. King’s life, the current research underway on CTE, and his family’s thoughts about the disease and how they are moving forward and honoring his memory.

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Dr. King in the mid-1950s

Why doing this blog was so important to me:

I grew up playing sports with and against Dr. King’s oldest son, Mike, from middle school through high school. We stayed connected through social media, and I always found the articles intriguing that he posted about CTE, but I never really understood his connection to the disease. His father would have turned seventy on April 27th of this year, and Mike posted several pictures of his dad. I did some research and found out the story of his father’s death and diagnosis and I knew it was a story I wanted to share.

As a women’s college soccer coach, one of my primary concerns is injury prevention, and primarily preventing concussions. I am in talks with local medical departments about developing concussion testing for my program. Over the last several years, my team has suffered numerous concussions on the soccer field. It is my goal to find a path to help reduce these concussions, so that my student-athletes can enjoy their experience during their four years playing for me, and also to not suffer any of the negative effects that one can suffer later in life after concussions.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE):

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found only in people who have suffered a history of repetitive brain trauma. This brain trauma causes an abnormal build-up of a protein called tau, which kills brain cells. Some of the symptoms include: confusion, memory loss, paranoia, impulsivity, aggression, depression, and eventually progressive dementia. One of the most troubling facts is that there is no timetable for when the symptoms will begin; sometimes they don’t develop until decades after the trauma. Another bothersome fact is that currently there is no diagnosing CTE until after death through brain tissue analysis.

When most people think of CTE, they only think of former NFL players like Mike Webster, Junior Seau, and Ken Stabler. One of the most influential advocates for CTE research and awareness is Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was portrayed in the 2015 controversial, hit movie, Concussion, by Hollywood star, Will Smith. Dr. Omalu went head-to-head with one of the country’s most powerful organizations, the NFL, in his battle to protect football players from suffering from CTE.

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Dr. King playing quarterback for Hampden-Sydney in the late-1960s

What most people don’t know is that CTE can also be developed in athletes from other contact or collision sports besides football (and even in extreme athletes like the late BMX biker Dave Mirra), in military veterans, and also in successful surgeons who never played in the NFL. Dr. King was a very good football player, and captained and quarterbacked the teams at Greensboro Page High School in North Carolina and Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia in the late-1960s. His family knew of him as the “bionic man” due to all of his surgeries resulting from football injuries, including shoulder replacements, knee replacements, a hip replacement, a fused ankle, and severe rheumatoid arthritis.

Dr. King’s Life:

Dr. King was born in Michigan in 1946, and grew up in Greensboro. After his four years at Hampden-Sydney, he went to medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill, before doing his residency at Wake Forest. During his time in medical school, he was nicknamed Hubbell, after a movie character portrayed by Robert Redford, due to his good looks.

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Dr. King in the mid-1960s

He spent several decades as an orthopedic surgeon at Orthopedic Specialists of the Carolinas. Dr. King also enjoyed coaching his children’s sports teams, gardening, traveling, and reading about history and politics, and he was an artist and craftsman.

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Dr. King and Susan at their wedding in 1973

For most of his adult life he suffered from depression, though it worsened rapidly during his last few years. Dr. King’s first wife, Susan, and the four King children (Katie, Mike, Marylynn and Alex) all dealt with Dr. King’s varying bouts with depression in their own ways and helped however they could.

After he and Susan divorced in 2001, Dr. King married Donna Dillon, in 2007 and welcomed a step-daughter, Meagan, into his life. Even though he was remarried, he still remained very close with Susan.

In the last year or so of his life, Dr. King would occasionally mention that he thought he might have CTE given his injury history and worsening symptoms. His family knew he had suffered numerous concussions, and when they received the horrible news about his death, they didn’t give up on Dr. King. They donated his brain to the Veterans Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation brain bank, whose researchers later diagnosed him with CTE.

Remembering Dr. King and his legacy:

Throughout Dr. King’s life, despite his own suffering, he was there for others who were in need. He continued to enjoy the Friday night lights of high school football during much of his medical career, as he donated his time to treat young Winston-Salem athletes. He treated all of his patients with the utmost respect and cared for them like they were a part of his family. After Dr. King passed away, the condolences poured in from both friends and patients. I will leave this blog post with some of those comments:

“If there was a surgeon that did a perfect job-it was Dr. King.”

“His ability to put you at ease while facing surgery was remarkable.”

“He was more than our doctor, he was our friend.”

“He was a football hero, tall and larger than life to us and he always had a kind word for us.”

“When my son was in surgery, he had woken up and told Dr. King he wanted to be a doctor someday, which was a surprise to us (and I think to our son, too). Now he is in medical school. I hope that he will be as good of a physician as Dr. King was!”

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King extended family at Wrightsville Beach in 1990

Coming soon, I will speak to the family about their thoughts on Dr. King and CTE and about how they are moving forward, and I will dig further into how medical research and awareness are helping to protect athletes from this disease.

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris Jay says:

    I am so deeply grateful for this article. Over my life I have had no less than 3 traumatic brain injuries, the last, a fall off my roof – resulting in a brief coma. Upon awakening, I was finally told that I had pre-existing brain damage – despite my best efforts over the decades to find answers to my confusing and emotionally painful symptoms. Since falling off the roof my symptoms have gotten progressively worse and life has become untenable for me and especially my wife and 2 children. Tormented, I tried to find the right combinations of medication and therapy but to no avail over the course of 1 1/2 years. Deeply saddened, I continue to try albeit with the wall growing ever higher. Having given up law, I have all but given up – consumed by this plagued brain – always looking for an answer. Yes – one need not play football to have CTE; not that I know that I do. However, I can only recite the difficulties that I have had in my life and how they affect families – not just the injured. With the deepest gratitude for this article. Chris Jay

  2. Mike King says:

    Hi Chris,

    Our family is also extremely grateful for the blog post and the upcoming installments. While every traumatic brain injury story is different, there are many commonalities among the experiences of the sufferers. Thus it is all the more important for the stories to be shared. And as you rightly point out, the experiences absolutely include the sufferers’ families, friends, colleagues and others who care about them and often want desperately to help.

    It is true that from temporary effects to post-concussion syndrome to CTE and other permanent conditions, awareness and treatment has come a long way. But there’s much further to go and it can’t happen fast enough. At the same time, thankfully, there are fantastic resources including active support groups that are expanding and strengthening every day. The Concussion Legacy Foundation (http://concussionfoundation.org) and other advocacy groups work on awareness, prevention and family support for sufferers. There are also very active groups on social media like Facebook’s Brain Warriors (https://www.facebook.com/groups/225427004505865/) and Save Your Brain (https://www.facebook.com/Save-Your-Brain-1174271219251975/) that welcome new members every day who share their stories, support each other, and learn from each other. I highly recommend these resources to you and to any other traumatic brain injury sufferers and their families and friends.

    On behalf of my late father, Michael King, and my family, I wish you and your loved ones continued hope, strength, discovery, understanding and patience.

    Sincerely,

    Mike King
    Washington, DC

    1. Chris Jay says:

      Dear Mr. King;
      I thank you so very much for your kind and thoughtful response. It means the world to me, as I continually fight myself against the isolation that stems from the associated symptoms. I appreciate the extra resources. I believe I know Save Your Brain – if this is Kim Archie – we are facebook friends and her efforts along with all others mean so much to me.
      Thank you, your family, and the author – whose writing provided a sense of catharsis.
      Having connections with several doctors that understand head injury, along with the validation of your father’s story is so important. If only – because acceptance remains un uphill battle – although it pales in comparison to 30 + years ago when I first began to complain – only to receive diagnoses of hypochondria.
      Again – my deepest heartfelt gratitude for your response. Chris Jay

  3. James alexander says:

    Dr King was a genuine man. He was a caring healer and an understanding soul. He helped so many to understand their pain and/or injury while never complaining about his own. I miss him. The world was a better place with him and is a better place because of him.There is no way to fully put into words the impact he had on athletes, coaches and others he helped and touched through his work and example. I wish I could have related this more clearly to him in person. Absolutely one of Gods great gifts to the world and my pleasure to have known him in a small way.

    1. Mike King says:

      Hi James, my family thanks you sincerely for sharing your touching, generous words!

      Very best wishes,

      Mike King
      Washington, DC

  4. Kristi Mauldin says:

    I read this blog, because my friend posted it on Facebook. She is a nurse anesthetist and worked closely with Dr. King over the years. After reading the blog, I felt how much this man deeply affected those around him in a positive way. It truly is sad about CTE. There are new treatments for traumatic brain injury through the works of Dr. Ted Carrick who has founded and developed functional neurology. His work is amazing and continues to expand. I practice this kind of work myself in my practice in Lexington. Through the use of standard neurological exams, a series of therapies may be customized for an individual and with other approaches. I encourage anyone reading this to do research on Dr. Carrick’s work. If interested, you may contact me as well. I do realize there are still so few of us in the world who practice this way, but the field has grown tremendously and continues to grow. I know how difficult it is to live with neurologically debilitating symptoms and how it does affect everyone around.

  5. Our family lived this guy so much. He was always there when we needed medical help and more. May Jesus our Lord comfort his family as only HE can.
    Mike operated on me, my husband and son. We sure miss him and sad to know we could not have helped him.

    1. Mike King says:

      Hi Suzanne, my family is grateful for your kind words and sympathies. Thank you for sharing!

      Sincerely,

      Mike King
      Washington, DC

  6. JustSomeOldDude says:

    Scary, ive hit my head a few times in my youth and was knocked out once causing a hematoma. now in my late 40 im battling depression every day aggravated by other health problems. I once was diagnosed with cerebral arthritis. i had always hoped the depression would pass as i got older.

    1. Mike King says:

      Dear Sir,

      Thank you for your comment, and I am sorry to hear about the challenges you are facing. You may be interested in learning more about the Concussion Legacy Foundation, particularly its resources on concussion clinics and other treatment guidance. http://concussionfoundation.org/learning-center/concussion-clinics

      We wish you the very best,

      Mike King
      Washington, DC

  7. Dr. King operated on both of my knees in 2004 and 2005. They were my very first surgeries and, as a college freshman, I was still quite young and impressionable. I worried immensely about the operations but didn’t want to let on. He could sense that. With a smile and that smirk of his, he somehow put me completely at ease. My nerves were gone, soon to be followed by my knee pain.

    I’m still a patient at OrthoCarolina. I don’t have to heart to change the contact from “Dr. King” to my current surgeon. He’s still hanging on in my memories and I very much enjoy that.

    Caroline

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