Thiago Alves says “Pre-Fight Medicals May Have Saved My Life”

By Katrina Belcher

Thiago Alves has a lot to raise his hands about – he’s a winner and a champion, but this time his victory was not in the ring, but in the operating room.

According to an exclusive interview given by Thiago Alves, (not to this journalist, but another more fortunate one!): “Three weeks ago, and only a few days prior to his UFC 111 showdown with fellow UFC welterweight contender Jon Fitch, officials from the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) discovered an abnormality in Thiago Alves’ brain and pulled him from the card. If left untreated, Doctors informed the 24-year-old that the affliction could have proven fatal had he incurred any brain trauma from fighting or even sparring.”

Not surprising, in spite of the public outcry, the decision by NJSACB medical official, Dr. Sherry Wulkan, was probably the best one that could have been made on Alves’ behalf. Credited with discovering his condition from a discrepancy she found between a CT scan image done on the Brazilian fighter in 2005, and one he had taken a week before his fight with Fitch, Alves believes she saved his life: “I’m so thankful that Dr. Wulkan discovered this so that we could get it fixed before it became a problem," he says. "She did a lot for me and I’ll never forget it. She and Dr. Berenstein were incredible. I owe both of them a lot. I’m glad it’s over and I can’t wait to fight again.”

Subsequent tests revealed that an artery in Thiago’s brain was dangerously close to becoming fused with a neighboring vein. Called "arteriovenous malformation" or AVM, Alves has said he believes that if it weren’t for the stringent, necessary medical testing procedures the NJSACB’s require fighters to undergo and pass before granting them an MMA license in the Garden State, he never would have known that he had this condition in his brain and could have suffered an aneurysm, internal bleeding or worse – death, as although it would not necessarily have proven fatal under normal circumstances, had the two vessels joined, his chances of mortality would have increased tenfold. Not to mention what could have happened as the result of getting rocked in the ring.

Anyone who has been involved in trying to get MMA regulated in these United States should be applauding the work done by Dr. Sherry Wulkan, and the team of experts in the NJSACB. They just helped to send a HUGE message (are you listening Bob Reilly and Bob Arum?) to those states and undecided individuals who are trying to decide if they should sanction and regulate MMA in their state or not. Now – there should no longer be any doubt in anyone’s mind. It’s quite simple: DO IT.

In fact, Alves says he has a message for all of the state and provincial athletic commissions in the U.S. and Canada, that are waffling about whether or not mixed martial arts is too dangerous of a sport to regulate: “The testing fighters go through to be able to fight is better than it is in any other sport. If I wasn’t a fighter, I never would have had a CT scan, which means I never would have known that I had this problem." Per Alves: "We’re professional athletes and the commissions that regulate MMA treat us like any other sport, because we are professionals. Maybe my story will change the minds of some of the people who are misinformed.”

In the State of Tennessee, it used to be a crime to fight in mixed martial arts, but our state athletic commission change all that and sanctioned MMA, requiring it to be regulated, in July of 2008. Since then, several local promotions have started springing up and offering the folks of Knoxville an opportunity to be involved in the MMA scene.

Fortunately for Alves, Dr. Wulkan introduced him to Dr. Alejandro Berenstein, the director of Beth Israel’s Hyman-Newman Institute for Neurology and Neurosurgery at Roosevelt hospital in New York. Dr. Berenstein is one of the leading specialists in the world in interventional neuroradiology – and the doctor who invented the non-invasive procedure used to repair Alves’ abnormality. In his shoes, I wouldn’t want anyone else touching my head – no doubt!

The operation, which lasted only a few hours entailed entering the brain through a catheter inserted in a small incision in the Alves’ groin (can you say OUCH?!) After isolating and separating the culprit vein and artery, doctors used medical grade “Krazy Glue” to form an artificial wall between the vessels. Per Alves: "They used Krazy Glue to fix the problem, so I guess you can say my brain is a bit more crazy now."  Hmmm – not sure, but can this guy get much crazier – he is The Pit Bull, right? And I mean that in a good way!

Now, after just a two-week training ban per doctor’s orders, which was fortunately very strongly enforced by his American Top Team teammates and coaches, Alves is now back to training, feeling great and anxiously awaiting word later tonight from doctors and the NJ commission on whether or not his postponed scrap with Fitch is a go for UFC 115 in June.

Alves has said he is relieved that the surgery was a success and that he’s not feeling any ill-effects from his former condition or its reparative procedure.

Ask anyone who’s had surgery, it’s a scary prospect. But brain surgery? That has to be one of the scariest things to have to go through. In fact, Alves has admitted the stress of going into his brain surgery was far worse than the stress experienced when heading into a fight: “It was really tough going through this, especially so close to a fight I was looking so forward to. I went from being so excited for the fight, to not knowing if I’d ever be able to fight again,” explains Alves. “Having one of the best doctors in the field definitely helped reassure me, but I still was pretty scared going into surgery. I kept thinking, ‘What if I never wake up?’”

I can’t blame him – I think pretty much anyone going through that type of surgery would be thinking the same thing. Still, not only did he have major support from fans, officials, family and his training partners, Alves is a fighter, so was there any real question he’d move forward with the surgery and beat this AVM and come out ahead? Not to my mind.

So now we all have to wait and see. See if the AC releases him, and if the UFC will let him fight again. And see if Alves is any crazier now than he was before. No doubt he’s still a fighter, and I send my best wishes to him.

And while I have your attention, can I get some kudos and mad respect sent to Dr. Wulkan, who serves as an advisor to the MMA Fight Council, her team of professionals, and Dr. Berenstein?

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