Knocked Out

Medical effects of concussion far worse for kids.

Matt would spend nearly a month in intensive care due to complications from second-impact syndrome. His first concussion, suffered three weeks before on the second-to-last play of a game, was not detected, even after Dave took Matt to the doctor when he told his father that he felt blurry.

"One thing that still hurts is that I always told my kids that if they suffered a concussion, I would keep them out the whole year," says Matt's father. "He passed all of his neurological tests. I guess he was misdiagnosed."

Matt suffered another setback when the surgical incision became infected, requiring another procedure to remove a piece of his skull. For the next 42 days, Matt was forced to wear a helmet and take a chemotherapy-like cocktail of antibiotics.

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.

"I don't remember much at the hospital," says Matt, who was paralyzed on the right side of his body for more than a month. "I remember people holding me up while I tried to take my first step, but my body felt like there was nothing there, like a ghost."

To the surprise of the physicians, Matt eventually recovered. Soon, the high-school graduate will attend De Anza College in Cupertino, California, to start a hoped-for career in physical therapy, a profession he never considered until after his injury. His first choice was to become a paramedic, but he's been told that's impossible. That's because his right eye remains half-blind.

Dr. Mark Ashley — co-founder, president and CEO of the Centre for Neuro Skills, whose clinics in Bakersfield, California, and Irving, Texas, specialize in traumatic brain injury rehabilitation — is currently helping Ali Champness recover from a number of serious health issues spawned by the not-too-dramatic hits from a soccer ball in January.

Champness, based on Ashley's advice, sat out the rest of the soccer season. Two months later, she joined the school's swim team. But three weeks in, Ali called her mom from a competitive meet in a panic. "Mom, you need to get me to a doctor," Kim Champness remembers her daughter saying.

At Ashley's center, an MRI and CAT scan revealed bleeding in Ali's brain. A cardiologist found that the initial concussion had deregulated Ali's autonomic nervous system. For months, whenever Ali jogged on the treadmill, her heartbeat soared high enough to trigger cardiac arrest or stroke. She still goes to rehab three hours a day.

One of Ashley's most severe cases, treated at the Centre's Texas facility in 2006, was a 13-year-old football player from the Seattle suburbs named Zackery Lystedt, called "Ray Ray" after his idol, rampaging linebacker Ray Lewis.

In the second quarter of a game, Zack fell backwards after an unremarkable tackle and hit the back of his head, although the injury escaped the notice of his father in the stands. "I thought he had gotten the wind knocked out of him," recalls Victor Lystedt.

Zack played every down for the rest of the game, even forcing a fumble and sprinting to a 32-yard return. But when his dad met him after the game, Zack started stumbling and muttering, "My head hurts really bad."

He collapsed onto the field. His left eye suddenly "blew out" and turned an inky black, the result of blood swelling in his skull. And then he convulsed into dozens of strokes. Says Victor, who witnessed the spectacle, helpless and confused, "My boy was dying on a football field." His son would survive, but his serious health problems continue to the present day.

Concussive episodes in youth aren't limited to soccer and football players, says Dr. William Jones, a staff physician at the Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine Institute in Houston. In recent years, Jones has witnessed a staggering increase in concussions, due partly to better detection, in high-school cheerleaders and ten-year-old gymnasts.

Because of this, school districts en masse are adopting new procedures for dealing with blows to the head. The most popular is the ImPACT test. A simple computer program designed by a pair of Pittsburgh doctors in the early 1990s, the exam finds an athlete's "baseline" — his mental aptitude and quickness of reflexes when he's not suffering concussive symptoms — which can be used later in a comparative test to see if a collision has caused a lag.

But the test has hit real-world snags. The first is its price: At packages costing roughly $600 per school for the first year, ImPACT is deemed too expensive for some districts. And even when they spring for the program, few schools can afford to pay a specialist to administer it. That duty tends to fall on coaches or trainers, who are often unqualified to conduct the test. As shown in a litigious case in the 'burbs of New York City, the results can be tragic.

In 2008, Ryne Dougherty, a 16-year-old high school linebacker in Essex County, New Jersey, sat out three weeks following a concussion. But after taking an ImPACT test, he was cleared to play. During his first game back, he suffered a brain hemorrhage and slipped into a coma. Ryne died within a week.

But Ryne's ImPACT results were ominously low, the family has claimed in a lawsuit against the school district. Additionally, according to the test results, Ryne reported feeling "foggy," but he was still cleared to play.

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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
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.

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.

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

 
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