Knocked Out

Medical effects of concussion far worse for kids.

As more and more states enact concussion laws, medical professionals, athletic trainers and school administrators are wondering if these laws are actually going to help prevent a condition that's inherently difficult to detect.

"I think the law comes up a little short," says Saint Louis University head athletic trainer Anthony Breitbach about Missouri's Interscholastic Youth Sports Brain Injury Prevention Act, "because a lot of these symptoms are subtle and can be easily concealed by the athlete if he or she wants to play." Additionally, Breitbach estimates that since only half of the state's schools can afford to employ an athletic trainer (which echoes a nationwide trend), a lot of concussions will continue to go undiagnosed, even with the new law in place.

In Arizona, on the strength of Governor Jan Brewer's signature on House Bill 1521, the Mayo Clinic is offering free, online-based concussion tests to more than 100,000 high school athletes.

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.

In June, the Mayo Clinic issued a press release stating that the Arizona Interscholastic Association had endorsed the baseline test, which was not true and caused an AIA attorney to threaten legal action. The two have since made up and are partnering to test all Arizona contact athletes during the 2011-2012 school year starting with football.

Steve Hogen, athletic director of Mesa Public Schools, had concerns with Arizona's law even before it passed. According to him, if he and his cohorts hadn't been vocal about the bill's language (which was consequently amended), the law would have placed an impossible load on them.

"It put the burden on us that we had to make sure that all Pop Warner football kids were tested. That's impossible. We can't do that," says Hogen. "What if an out-of-state group had come in and they didn't have this concussion testing? We wouldn't have had the resources to check."

Because a legal precedent has yet to be established on these new laws, attorneys are divided on how potential lawsuits will play out in a courtroom.

Steven Pachman is a Philadelphia-based lawyer who has advised numerous academic institutions and athletic entities about concussion litigation. Though Pachman declines comment about specific clients, a records search shows that he defended La Salle University in a lawsuit filed by the family of a former player. Preston Plevretes claimed that he had received severe brain damage because the school's nurse and a team trainer inserted him back into play too soon following a concussion. (La Salle settled out of court for $7.5 million.)

Pachman explains that he receives a call each week from advice-seeking youth and high school sports organizations, and "what I'm hearing from the defense perspective — 'We don't have a plan' and 'An athletic trainer is too expensive' — frightens me," says Pachman.

"The youth sports might suffer the most because of their lack of resources...A town of 80 people, like the one from Hoosiers, may not even think about potential litigation until something tragic happens," says Pachman.

Randall Scarlett of the San Francisco-based Scarlett Law Group admits that it's a "dismal state out there in terms of concussion protocols that coaches and others are to follow." However, Scarlett doesn't think there will be a deluge of lawsuits if and when the state's bill is approved. (California's concussion legislation has been in the works for the past two years, but, due to financial constraints, has not made it out of committee.)

"In California, you're not going to get litigation unless you get some pretty egregious facts because of the burden of proof and the lack of standards for non-physicians," he says.

Before concussion laws came into vogue, the mother of Demond Hunt Jr. took her son's coach and the local school district to task.

In 2008, Demond, a 16-year-old linebacker for East St. Louis High School (Illinois), collapsed on the sideline during a game. A blood vessel had burst in his brain, which sent Hunt into multiple seizures and strokes.

Earlier in the game, Demond, according to the lawsuit, had complained of a concussion-like headache to his coach, who told him in so many words to suck it up and keep playing. Prosecuting attorney Michael McGlynn, who refused to comment in detail, says the case is still pending.

The parents of Zackery Lystedt of Seattle also filed suit on their son's behalf. Airlifted to a Seattle ER on life support, Zackery had the top of his head completely removed by surgeons. He wasn't supposed to regain consciousness.

The milestones that have come since then have been both miraculous and frustratingly glacially paced. Nine months following the strokes, Lystedt resumed speaking. By 13 months, he moved his left arm. After 20 months, he could once again eat. Now, five years later, Zack, age 18, can walk a few steps with a cane. "You get a little bit back, you want a little bit more," says Victor Lystedt of his son's progress. "You never get satisfied, because you had it all before."

Zack's parents, whose lives have been completely altered as they have cared full-time for their son, sued the school district for allowing him to play through his injury. The district settled, with one of its lawyers shrugging off the payout as a "business decision."

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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.

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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