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Published in CenterView on February 27, 2012
A member of the black team takes a practice run on the Mississippi set of Full Metal Jousting last fall. Photo courtesy of the History Channel.
A member of the black team takes a practice run on the Mississippi set of Full Metal Jousting last fall. Photo courtesy of the History Channel.

Reality TV's throwback sport challenges modern emergency practice

By Matt Westerfield

Not a whole lot of health-care providers can say they have experience with removing armor from an injured jouster, but emergency physician Dr. Andy Anderson has had some practice.

In fact, that was his initial concern when volunteering for a new reality TV series last fall centering on competitive jousting.

"I'm used to dealing with sports injuries," Anderson said. "We actually did a study comparing two methods for removing a football helmet. But I've never removed armor, and my first question to the safety people was, 'How quickly can you gain access to the airway if need be?'

"The second question was, 'Will these guys even fit on an ambulance stretcher?'"

It was all part of the learning curve that Anderson and fellow emergency physician Dr. Jonathan Jones faced when they volunteered to be consulting physicians on the set of "Full Metal Jousting."

Depending on how you look at it, "full-contact" jousting is either history's original extreme sport or the modern world's newest. A far cry from theatrical jousting staged at Renaissance fairs or the medieval-themed restaurants, the competitive jousting of FMJ and other tournaments around the globe is all about full-speed collisions on horseback with 11-foot lances.

The goal is to strike the opponent's grand guard - a target bolted to the breastplate. Unhorsing your opponent nets extra points.

The elimination challenge pits 16 contestants against each other in weekly matches, and the last man standing rides off with a $100,000 prize. The series airs Sunday nights on the History Channel. It was filmed near Jackson last October and November and premiered earlier this month.

Anderson and Jones had never heard of competitive jousting but were instantly intrigued.

"We deal with a lot of traumatic injuries in the Emergency Department, and I had honestly seen injuries from just about everything, including swords and axes and falls," Jones said. "I had never seen anything from a joust, so I said, 'Well, this is emergency medicine.'"

Dr. Richard Summers, chair of emergency medicine, said he was notified early on by the show's producers that UMMC's E.D. might get some jousting injuries.

"They wanted us to be aware because it's a little bit different injury than we usually see,"

Summers said, "but since we're the only level one trauma center, it's the logical place for them to go."

When several contestants were taken by ambulance to the E.D. during the course of filming, camera crews were granted supervised permission to shoot their treatment - footage that may get the department on primetime TV. None of the injuries were life-threatening, Summers said.

During his time on location, Anderson said he saw some tremendous impacts.

"This is the only sport I know of where there is no defensive tactic that you can offer," he said. "Whether you're playing football, rugby, boxing or mixed martial arts, there's some type of defensive tactic that you can employ.

"With this, you're basically upright on a horse, not able to dodge, and you're just going to have to grit your teeth."

"One of the things we don't see a lot of in the Emergency Department is professional athletes," Jones said. And while the FMJ contestants - representing a variety of backgrounds from across the nation - might not qualify as professional athletes, they were competing for a lot of money.

"Where that changes things is, seeing someone who has an injury and really, really wants to convince you that they're OK, it put a different pressure on us," said Jones. "With these guys, if we said you can't play, they lost their shot at $100,000.

"It was a different aspect of patient care, treating these people and knowing that the decision you make has to be correct clinically and medically but at the same time can have a huge impact on their lives and their future careers."

Both Jones and Anderson were impressed by the safety measures the producers put in place for the contestants and the support crew.

"There was definitely an element of danger, but they also did everything possible to make the contestants as safe as possible," Anderson said. "Everything from the different layers of dirt, the way the armor is designed and shaped, the way the helmet interlocks with the breastplate. There were a lot of safety precautions there."

If the Medical Center gets any visibility from the series, Summers is confident it will be positive.

"They will see that the E.D. is capable of handling any kind of traumatic injury, regardless of the source of that injury," he said. "And I think we did that very well with these guys.

"That's one of the things emergency medicine does as a specialty; it takes whatever comes in the door."

Based on what they've learned about show business so far, Anderson and Jones say it's impossible to predict whether the series will be a success. But if there's a second season, they would certainly volunteer again.

"I think it was a good opportunity for UMMC to get involved, too," Jones said. "All the contestants were happy with the care that they got here. Not all of them needed care here, luckily. But quite a few did.

"We provided a good service for them that I don't think they could have gotten anywhere else."