A FRIGHTENING DIAGNOSIS

THE MEDICAL DIRECTOR SAID ASU ADMINISTRATORS WERE ENDANGERING THE HEALTH OF STUDENT ATHLETES. THE DIRECTOR GOT FIRED. THE DANGER'S STILL THERE.

She originally had been leaning toward the study of literature, not medicine. Then, she says, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She was outraged watching her mother being treated like a disease rather than a human being.

"My mother was a brutally blunt woman, and when she was receiving care, people treated her like protocols," Vollen says, referring to the soulless rules for a medical experiment. "No one would deal with her needs--that she was dying. For me, the reason this was so critical was that I recognized the ability to deal with true needs was probably the most important thing you could give someone."
Vollen's mother died in 1977. Her father and an uncle died of cancer in following years. She diagnosed cancer in another uncle who survived, and she has fought the disease herself.

Her experience with her family, she says, still stokes her passion for medicine. "From that," she says, "I wanted to help people with their realities."

After graduating from Princeton, Vollen attended medical school at the University of Illinois in 1982, then studied internal medicine at Northwestern University and took a residency in public health and preventive medicine at the University of California in San Diego.

In 1989, looking to a future of running large, institutional health-care programs, where she could concentrate on the full range of patient needs, she earned a master's of public health from San Diego State University.

She started a lucrative business managing a health-care consulting service in Chicago and was immersed in her career, but began to feel that her true professional challenge waited elsewhere.

She took a couple of months off to visit China, she says, and then climbed Mount Everest. Having surmounted a life of personal challenge, Vollen wanted to concentrate on professional growth.

A university, she believed, would be the perfect place for her to apply herself. She could return to the comfortable world of campus life--a world where she believed personalities and politics could be set aside in favor of principled debate and enlightened progress.

After applying at several schools, she accepted an offer from ASU, which selected her after a nationwide search for a new director of student health.

The university's main concern, she says, was whether she would commit to stay on the job for an extended time period. Although she would work under successive one-year contracts, she says that Vice President for Student Affairs Christine Wilkinson wanted assurances that she would stay for at least seven years.

"I made a decision," Vollen says. "I was fortified enough. I didn't need to believe in myself anymore. I needed to make people believe in themselves."
She started on the job in the summer of 1991 and immediately became responsible for a health-care system of about 80 employees who deal with myriad student and university services. The student health clinics at ASU conduct about 80,000 patient visits a year, treating students with everything from colds and rashes to serious medical problems.

Also under her umbrella were counseling and wellness programs, health education, substance-abuse programs and student health insurance.

When she took the job, Vollen says, university administrators promised that all aspects of student health--most particularly the health of student athletes--would be under her control.

"Up until the very end, when I blew the whistle, I was, in my mind, untouchable," Vollen says. "I never thought anything would happen to me."
But the seemingly clinical world of student health was destined to collide with the roiling political reality of university politics. The athletic department, and its combustive mix of ego, competitiveness and boosterism, would prove to be her downfall.

@rule:
@body:Well before Vollen arrived at ASU, the university's athletic department had undergone an embarrassing, and scandalous, lesson in the need for a clear line of authority when it came to the health care of student athletes.

News broke in 1985 that various athletes had been visiting an off-campus doctor and receiving prescriptions for Nardil, an antidepressant with potentially unpredictable side effects. One basketball player taking Nardil blamed the drug after he struck an opposing team manager during a game.

The state Senate asked the Board of Regents to find out what was going on; a subsequent report found that athletes were being referred to the outside doctor without the knowledge of the university's own student health service, and without any control by the university's team physician.

Another incident with Nardil in 1988 prompted the university to an unambiguous action. From then on, the ASU administration decreed, student health services were to be the only conduit for all referrals to outside doctors. Student athletes should receive no medical treatments without the knowledge of the team physician.

The handbook passed out to student athletes was rewritten to state in no uncertain terms that "any medical diagnosis and prescribed treatment will be made through the team physician.

"The team physician will make every effort to provide the best possible health care to the athlete. The team physician is the final authority in determining when an injured or sick athlete may return to competition."
(The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which regulates countless facets of intercollegiate competition, intrudes lightly when it comes to medical care policies for student athletes. Each institution is free to devise its own method of administering care and making decisions, says Steve Mallonee of the NCAA Legislative Services office. The schools need only be sure that any benefits they provide are directly related to a student's participation in athletics, and that nothing is provided to athletes beyond what is available to the general student population, Mallonee says.)

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