ST. PETERSBURG — Jacquez Welch likely had the condition that killed him since birth.
The 17-year-old Northeast High School senior never got up from making a tackle during a football game against Osceola High on Friday. His sudden death came from an arteriovenous malformation — unusual, snarled tangles of blood vessels and arteries, which when ruptured, can cause bleeding on the brain.
The condition is rare — less than 200,000 cases are diagnosed every year in the United States. There are few side effects, which means it easily goes undetected.
“The majority of cases don’t cause problems, but it depends on where it’s located on the brain,” said Dr. Zeguang Ren, a neurosuregon at Tampa General Hospital, and an assistant professor with USF Health. “And for the most part, you just won’t know you have it, unless it ruptures.”
The malformations of the blood vessels and arteries occur most often on the brain or the spinal cord, but they can develop anywhere in the body, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke. The condition is diagnosed usually from a brain scan.
While most people have it from birth, arteriovenous malformations can cause tissue damage over time, according to the Mayo Clinic. The effects build up and begin to cause symptoms in early adulthood. At 17, Welch was in that targeted age range. It’s unclear why arteriovenous malformations form, but research suggests it can be inherited. Some patients with the condition stabilize by the time they reach middle age.
Men are more likely to have it, according to research from the Mayo Clinic.
“Studies show there’s no evidence to suggest that being active in any sport or strenuous activity would cause a rupture,” Ren said. “It can happen any time, in any situation.”
But the condition is serious and can be fatal. It can damage the brain or spinal cord by limiting the amount of oxygen that reaches neurological tissues, cause hemorrhaging, and can lead to stroke or brain damage. While most people with this kind of malformation experience few, if any, symptoms, it can lead to headaches, general weakness, seizures, pain in the body and problems with speech, vision or movement.
Treatment is tricky. Prescription medication can help alleviate headaches, back pain and seizures related to arteriovenous malformation, but surgery is required to fix the tangled blood vessels. A neurosurgeon can remove the malformation or perform surgery to prevent or stop any bleeding. These surgeries tend to be complicated and high risk, and physicians generally recommend monitoring the malformation over time. The greatest risk is hemorrhage, or catastrophic bleeding on the brain, which can be fatal.
Ren recommends patients see not just a neurosurgeon, but one that specializes in vascular neurosurgery, since the condition is so complicated.
“Every case is very individual. It requires lots of tests, usually,” he said. “But there’s no reason someone can’t live a normal life. You don’t have to limit your activities.”
How to help the family:
Northeast football coach Jeremy Frioud has set up a Go Fund Me page, which as of Tuesday night had raised more than $16,000, to help Jacquez Welch’s family with medical expenses. To donate, click here.