Knocked Out

Medical effects of concussion far worse for kids.

Knocked Out

Natasha Helmick goes up for a header during a Dallas soccer match and gets speared in the left temple by an opponent. The 14-year-old, a talented center midfielder playing in the choice Lake Highlands Girls Classic League, crumples to the ground.

She can't see anything out of her left eye. Her coach asks if she's okay, Natasha lies and says she's good to go and the coach puts her back into the lineup. She plays the remainder of the game, even though one eye sees darkness while floaters and sparkly objects dance in front of the other.

Natasha plays again later that day, sans full eyesight. Her vision will eventually return, but five years and four concussions later, Natasha Helmick is unable to recall much of her childhood.

Five years ago, former soccer player Natasha Helmick (left) once played a game half-blind after sustaining a concussion. Today, her mother Micky says that it takes her daughter three times as long to complete mental tasks.
Photo by Mark Graham
Five years ago, former soccer player Natasha Helmick (left) once played a game half-blind after sustaining a concussion. Today, her mother Micky says that it takes her daughter three times as long to complete mental tasks.
Miami's David Goldstein spoke to the Florida legislators about devastating health problems that developed after he suffered multiple concussions. Despite his testimony, Florida killed a concussion bill for youth athletes.
Photo by Michael McElroy
Miami's David Goldstein spoke to the Florida legislators about devastating health problems that developed after he suffered multiple concussions. Despite his testimony, Florida killed a concussion bill for youth athletes.

When speaking to her, you wouldn't know that Natasha, who was forced to give up an athletic scholarship to Texas State University-San Marcos, is a brain-damaged 19-year-old. "But academically," says her mother, Micky Helmick, "everything is three times harder."

As Natasha racked up more concussions, David Goldstein, a "little freshman" by his own estimation, shouldn't have even been on the soccer pitch during the January 2010 district finals for Ransom Everglades, a Miami, Florida-area prep school, against longtime rival Gulliver. But when an older kid was injured, David subbed in, and was playing one of the best games of his life when he collided head-to-head with an opponent he describes as "a monster from Gulliver."

Game tape shows David holding his head and swaying like a drunk. But there was no way he was going to take himself out of this match, and his coach didn't either.

It was — though David didn't understand the medical ramifications at the time — his third concussion in four years. After the game, he felt nauseous and cowed by light, stumbling to his dad's car and collapsing.

For months, the "blaring" headache persisted. "It's always there," he describes. "It's so intense, it takes over your life." Previously a devoted student, David took refuge in the school nurse's office three hours each day, closing his eyes to the painful light. He became agitated and impatient with his friends. Every specialist his parents took him to was perplexed by his condition.

Across the country, people have awakened to the sometimes irreversible damage of concussions, especially in high-impact professional sports. With much of the attention focused on the National Football and National Hockey leagues, the Houston Press — following a months-long, nationwide investigation into the consequences of concussion on youth athletes, who are bigger and more aggressive than in past generations, and often play year-round — has found the following:

• The effect of a concussion on kids can be much more devastating than on adults. Doctors say that until a person is in his early to mid-20s, his brain is not fully developed and can't take the same level of trauma as an adult brain can.

• Postmortem analysis, the only surefire way to measure concussions' devastating effects, shows that repeated blows to the head may be linked with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS and a number of other fatal diseases.

• An athlete who doesn't exhibit outward signs of a concussion (headaches, dizziness, vomiting, temporary amnesia) can still experience changes in brain activity similar to those in a player who has been clinically diagnosed with a concussion.

• Thus far in 2011, 20 state governments and the District of Columbia have signed concussion legislation that prohibits an athlete from returning to play until cleared by a licensed physician. To date, 28 states (as well as the city of Chicago) have concussion laws in place. This does not include Florida, whose legislators struck down a proposed bill that could have helped protect youth athletes.

• The ImPACT test, widely regarded as the go-to neurological exam to measure concussive blows, doesn't always accurately gauge a player's readiness to return to action. And you can cheat on it.

Meanwhile, as attorneys debate how the new concussion laws will play out, kids like Natasha Helmick, whose memory struggles sometimes resemble those of an elderly person, continue to battle a condition that puts parents who want the best for their children in an interesting position: Would they push to have them be standouts in athletics — sometimes the key to a better future — if they realized that in some cases, their kids can be harmed for life by their participation in elite sports?

The answer is "no" for Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who says, based on his own concussion episodes, that he will never allow his kids to play a contact sport.
_____________________

For Ali Champness, it was a freak ball kicked into her face by her own goalie in practice that turned her life upside down. The 14-year-old freshman, who'd already made junior varsity at Garces Memorial, a Catholic high school in Bakersfield, California, told her parents the sting went away after a little while.

Two days later, though, on the way to a game, recalls her mother, Kim Champness, Ali complained of a headache and dizziness.

During play, the ball was kicked in the air and "brushed across the front of [Ali's] face," says Kim. "It was not a hard hit at all, but right after that, she started stuttering." Ali saw a doctor, who discovered a number of much more serious problems.

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14 comments
Jenna
Jenna

you know, people might say "i can't believe she lied to her coach if she couldnt even see fully!" about tasha..but this is her passion! Its her life! i just wish she had've been more careful! i love her to death and i worry about her and her brother! (she's my cousin!)

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randyfleming

Same cover story in the Seattle Weekly ?!.Hmm-m.

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JRCash
JRCash

"[H]e'll never get to experience what it's like to play in a Texas [high school football] playoff game."

Priorities.

And I'm no squishy, overprotective parent worried about "violence" here - I played TX high school football and plenty of ice hockey as an adult. I had to eventually give up the hockey because of... concussions.

I'm still just floored that this coach actually thinks he took something away from that kid, because he stopped what was obviously a train wreck waiting to happen. Honestly, bro - the question should be did you stop him soon enough?!

BecauseIsaidso
BecauseIsaidso

What kind of Society do we live in, which allows our children to be maimed for life, when they are just "playing a game'? Our children trust us and it is up to every parent and coach to teach them right from wrong, permanent injury is terribly wrong.

Joshua Rotenberg MD
Joshua Rotenberg MD

Thank you for this brave and detailed exploration of head injuries in our children. No test or any machine "that goes bing" substitutes for expert evaluation and treatment. Any neuropsychological test should be interpreted by a professional with expertise in this area. Please see the consensus statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Joshua Rotenberg MD, pediatric Neurologist, Houston, Texas www.txmss.com

JRCash
JRCash

This isn't an indictment of "Society." Society, culture, or whatever doesn't do a darn thing that "allows our children to be maimed for life... 'playing a game.'" These are things that happen while playing a game, yes. But no one and nothing intentionally intends for kids to get hurt.

You completely, utterly, totally missed the point. You drove right by the point 250 miles ago.

And permanent injury isn't "wrong." Wrong implies a decision. Injuries are unfortunate, and some are tragic. But they are not "wrong." My broken hand (now arthritic) isn't "wrong."

The sad fact is that people are "maimed," to use your term, every single day, in random accidents and suffer injuries doing any number of normal, plain vanilla activities.

Sheesh.

S S
S S

Actually, JRCash, you mixed up a few points and are wrong about all of them. When adults organize games and sports for children, and structure rules and ways of playing them, there is all kinds of intention in them, including putting children in situations in which they are likely (and sometimes taught) to receive or inflict injuries, some of them permanent and disabling. I am quite certain you could find glaring examples of such things within a few blocks of your home, if you care to look (or listen for the applauding parents). Many of us recall very well being told as children that if we could not accept pain, we could not play sports. Pretending this is not the case is disingenous, if not irresponsible. Chidren are unable (legally and otherwise) to consent to conditions that can lead to serious injury, and for adults to do so on their behalf is not only not an accident of any sort, it is the definition of wrong. Finally, games and sports are social and cultural from top to bottom, period.

 
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