ATLANTIC CITY — Before the sun rises this weekend, Dr. Michael Sperling will be loading trucks and hauling a suitcase full of medical supplies with him to the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
Sperling doesn’t run in the Atlantic City Marathon races, but he and a group of city EMTs, emergency transport companies, physicians and medical students will be positioned along the courses Saturday and Sunday to treat the typical minor injuries and look out for any serious health issues among the thousands of runners.
Severe health problems on race day among seasoned marathon runners are rare, Sperling said. In fact, the death rate during marathons is less than one per every 100,000 runners, according to research published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Although Sperling is more likely to treat small scrapes, blisters, cramped muscles and exhaustion at the 26.2-mile finish line Sunday, he will be on alert for anyone who may experience more severe side effects from running, such as extreme dehydration, nonstop muscle cramping and chest pain.
“These guys are healthy people. Most are experienced runners as well, but they do push hard toward the end.” he said. “I think we’re good at immediately identifying people who need to go to the hospital.”
Sperling, his wife and his mother, who are both nurses, and a team of podiatry students from the New York College of Podiatric Medicine will triage runners, who will mostly likely need ice packs, water, bandages, aspirin, massages and wraps.
They will also direct anyone experiencing nausea, dizziness, severe cramping or chest pain to medical tents, where experts will monitor heart and respiratory rates. EMTs will transport runners to a hospital should they need intravenous fluids.
While only a very small number of marathon runners who experience these symptoms will suffer a serious medical condition, such sudden cardiac arrest, it still happens. John Wolfram, general manager of Exceptional Medical Transport, said in the past 28 years of the marathon, he has only seen one death.
Michael Mullen, 27, of Northfield, died in 2007 after he collapsed at the end of the event’s half marathon.
One runner died earlier this year at the London Marathon due to sudden cardiac arrest. Another American woman died halfway through the Montreal Marathon last year from sudden cardiac arrest.
“Our ambulance crews will be at the race and we can quickly transport people to a hospital,” Wolfram said. “Each ambulance has an automated external defibrillator on it in case we need to use it for someone in cardiac arrest.”
Wolfram will be in communication with Atlantic City police, ambulance crews and other medical professionals along the course to respond to anyone in need.
One of those people along the course will be Dr. Lisa Share, a pediatrician with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Smithville, Somers Point and Cape May locations. She will be overseeing a volunteer team at a hydration area at mile 17.
“In all the years I’ve been doing this, there have not been many significant injuries or illnesses. We don’t get a lot of over-dehydrated runners because the race is on cool days,” she said. “At mile 17, we might hand out some ice packs for knees or ankles that will act up, but most runners will want to continue.”
If Share sees someone who is in distress, she and other health officials will try to intervene and recommend medical treatment.
Experts say severe and life-threatening medical conditions at the marathon are unlikely, but still possible, and they would rather be prepared for them should the worst happen.
What they hope is that the majority of runners will only need some basic first aid attention after they complete a personal goal and a running feat.
“For such a competitive sport, people are very supportive of each other,” Share said. “It’s nice to see people come together for something they enjoy doing. I find it inspiring every time, of the people doing it for the challenge or health benefits. It inspires me to get my sneakers on and go outside.”