Doctors Say Racing’s Schumacher Is ‘Fighting for His Life’
By JOHN F. BURNS
Published: December 30, 2013
LONDON — Michael Schumacher, the most successful driver in the history of Formula One motor racing, with seven world drivers’ championships, is “fighting for his life” with brain injuries sustained on Sunday when he hit his head on a rock in a skiing accident in the French Alps, his doctors said on Monday.
They said it was too early to say whether Schumacher, a 44-year-old German, would survive, or what the extent of his brain injuries might be. They said that his family, including his wife, Corinna, and his teenage son and daughter, were at his bedside, and that the medical team was working continuously to save his life.
“Unfortunately, he had some lesions to his brain when he came in, he had some diffuse injuries to his brain, but we can’t really say what the outcome will be,” Dr. Jean-Francois Payen, an anesthesiologist who is leading Schumacher’s medical team at the Grenoble University Hospital Center, told a news conference.
“He’s in a critical situation and we can say he’s fighting for his life,” Dr. Payen said. “We judge him to be in a very serious condition.” He added, “We are working continuously, hour by hour, but it’s too early to say what’s going to happen, and to give a prognosis.”
No further medical updates were issued in Grenoble, and medical experts said the success of treatments for injuries like Schumacher’s was notoriously hard to predict. They said the treatments would focus on lowering the pressure inside Schumacher’s skull as his brain swelled from the bleeding associated with the lesions.
Further underlining the gravity of the injuries involved, those waiting in vigil at the hospital included several figures who were central to Schumacher’s career in grand prix racing, including Jean Todt, the Frenchman who was manager of the Ferrari team when Schumacher won five consecutive world drivers’ championships from 2000 to 2004, and who now heads the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the Paris-based governing body for world motor racing.
Also at the hospital was Ross Brawn, the Englishman who was the Ferrari team’s technical director during Schumacher’s championship years, and his team boss when he drove for the Benetton and Mercedes teams in the years that bracketed his career at Ferrari.
The news conference came nearly 24 hours after Schumacher, whose Formula One career spanned 21 years before his retirement in 2012, was airlifted by helicopter off the mountainside at Méribel, the Alpine resort in southeastern France, near the Italian border.
Resort officials said Schumacher had been skiing with his 14-year-old son, Mick, in an off-trail area between two of the resort’s main ski runs — the Biche and the Mauduit — when he fell and struck his head on a rock. The officials described the site of his accident as being part of a wide, treeless snowfield, known for its deep snow and for the challenges it presents for experienced skiers, including posted avalanche warnings.
Schumacher, who has a chalet nearby, has a reputation as an accomplished skier, and resort officials said he was wearing a helmet when he fell. His medical team told the news conference that the severity of his impact with the rock, causing the lesions on the right side of his brain, was such that he would have died had he not been wearing a helmet.
“Without a helmet, he wouldn’t be here now,” Dr. Payen said.
Doctors and resort officials emphasized the swiftness of the medical assistance Schumacher received after his fall. They said he was reached rapidly on the mountainside by an emergency rescue team that included paramedics, then airlifted initially to a small hospital in the nearby town of Moûtiers. After a rapid medical assessment there, they said, he was taken, again by helicopter, to the larger medical center at Grenoble, where he arrived barely 90 minutes after the mountainside impact.
Dr. Payen said Schumacher was conscious, but in “an agitated condition”, when he reached the Grenoble hospital. “We had to operate urgently to relieve the pressure on his brain,” he said.
After the operation, he said, Schumacher had been maintained in what he described as a medically induced coma, a common treatment in cases of severe head injury. Dr. Payen described it as intended to prevent further brain damage through the “animation” of the brain that might occur if Schumacher were conscious.
As the world of motor racing absorbed the news of the accident, there was a widespread sense of the ironies involved in Schumacher, dominant for so long in grand prix racing, a sport synonymous with high risk, suffering such severe injuries in retirement, while engaging in a favorite family pastime.
As a driver, Schumacher was known for his aggressive, win-at-all-costs style, and had a history of on- and off-track confrontations with other drivers.
His ruthlessness, and the disciplinary hearings he faced in front of the sport’s authorities, led many commentators to judge him, despite his many victories, to have fallen short of a position in grand prix racing’s pantheon, alongside such legendary drivers as the Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio.
The worst injury he suffered in the sport was a broken leg, the result of his Ferrari’s brakes locking and pitching him into a trackside tire barrier during the British Grand Prix in 1999. He emerged unscathed from several other high-speed crashes, a beneficiary of the vastly improved safety measures in Formula One, many of them adopted after the fatal accident incurred by the Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna at the Imola track in Italy in May 1994. Schumacher, then challenging Senna for supremacy in the sport, was running immediately behind Senna when the Brazilian veered off the track.
There has been no fatality in Formula One since.
Doctors at Grenoble suggested that there should be no great surprise that a skier — even one as attentive to his fitness as Schumacher, and as accomplished on the slopes — should incur such grievous injuries. Dr. Payen and others on the medical team said that serious head injuries, even among skiers wearing helmets, were regarded as a common occurrence among physicians working in hospitals close to major skiing centers like the French Alps.
Messages from prominent figures in sports and motor racing poured in to the hospital, including one from the current world champion, the 26-year-old German Sebastian Vettel, nicknamed the baby Schumi by the tabloid press and reckoned by many to be a driver capable of challenging Schumacher’s record of 91 grand prix wins.
Vettel told the German news agency DPA, “I am shocked and hope that he will get better as soon as possible.”
Jenson Button, the British McLaren driver who was one of Schumacher’s main rivals during his Ferrari and Mercedes years, told reporters, “Michael, more than anyone, has the strength to pull through this.”
Schumacher’s former Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa, a Brazilian who suffered life-threatening head injuries at the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009, sent his thoughts in a posting on the photo sharing service Instagram, in the caption of a picture of himself and Schumacher embracing each other. “I am praying for you, my brother!! I hope you have a quick recovery!!” he wrote. “God bless you, Michael.”
gb: So, skiing is more dangerous than F1 racing or singing duets with