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Mom On A Mission

Extending Concussion Safety Laws To Cover All Youth Sports Programs Essential, Says Sharon van Kooten of Indiana

The following is a redacted version of a letter one mom of a concussed young football player recently sent to her state legislators in a Midwestern state:

Dear _________________:

As the mother of an eight-year-old who sustained a concussion during bantam football practice, I believe it is essential for the provisions of our state's youth sports concussion safety law to be applied to all children participating in contact and collision sports held on school grounds. The injuries which occurred on my son's team of approximately 25 third- and fourth-graders clearly demonstrate that concussion information is necessary for these players, their parents, and their coaches.

Head and neck injuries common

In less than two months, there were three concussions and one case of whiplash on my son's team, and all of these injuries occurred at practices, not games. The parents of the first boy who sustained a concussion told me his medical report indicated severe brain trauma (the doctors even suggested he wear a helmet to school), and that they had to obtain the opinion of a second doctor to get him cleared to play football again. It's my understanding that the third boy who sustained a concussion also had balance difficulties and was told he was out for the season. I believe the boy who sustained the whiplash injury reported some type of numbness or tingling in his arms. He was one of the larger players on the team, and was injured when he made a head down tackle against another large player. I was present while he was boarded and removed from the practice field by ambulance. Although he was initially kept down by one of the coaches, he was allowed to sit up before the ambulance arrived.

My son's injury occurred when he made a tackling error. He was matched up against a fourth grader who was older, bigger, and more experienced. He had been knocked down and had forcefully hit the back of his head earlier in practice while he was the ball carrier (one of his coaches helped him to his feet, but didn't check him for any signs of concussion). The second blow to the back of his head occurred towards the end of the two hour practice. He ran as fast as he could to make a hard tackle, but when he forgot to stay low, he clashed face masks with the ball carrier, rebounded quickly, and forcefully struck the back of his head against the ground.

It was the type of hit that was loud enough to get the attention of every parent watching practice. He made no attempt to get up on his own, but was hauled to his feet by a coach, set back a few steps, and allowed to cry hysterically as practice recommenced. I waited a few moments to see if he would be able to walk off the practice field under his own power, and then approached while trying to wave him towards me. It became apparent that he was unable to walk himself off the field, and I feared I would have to walk through the tackle drill to reach him. Luckily, a parent who coached games intervened and escorted him to me.

I walked my son towards where other parents were sitting, and asked another parent to help me look at his pupils. Once he was able to talk, he told me that his head and neck hurt. I could tell he was in pain, but wasn't sure what I should do. As time went by, his headache decreased in severity, so I took him home and asked him a series of questions from an internet site on concussions. I wasn't able to identify any signs of confusion or speech impairment, and decided to wait until the next day to call the pediatrician.

In the morning he told me he had a headache, but I couldn't see any outwards sign of pain. I didn't realize a dull ache was indicative of a concussion, and assumed a concussion headache would be more painful. I drove him and my other two children to school, and called the pediatrician from his classroom. Considering how long it took him to fully recover, I wish I had allowed him to stay home and rest. I had no idea taking him to school could impede his recovery or exacerbate his symptoms.

My son's concussion did not seem as severe at first; however, he had vestibular system (eg. balance) problems, headaches, difficulty falling asleep, and fatigue for weeks and was not cleared to participate in gym for over two months. Due to his age and the length of his recovery, he is being withheld from any organized sport programs for the next few months.   

When I signed my son up for football, I assumed the injury rate for such young players was relatively low due to their smaller sizes, and I was not aware of the current research on concussions. I had no idea that sustaining a concussion increased the odds of subsequent concussions. Additionally, I didn't realize that the damage from concussions is cumulative or that sub-concussive blows could alter brain function and potentially lead to progressive degenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

If I had been provided with concussion information at the beginning of the season, I would have been able to make better decisions. In fact, based on our family history, I most likely would have never signed my son up for the program. He has a paternal grandmother with Parkinson's disease and a maternal aunt with an advanced case of Multiple Sclerosis, a neurodegenerative auto-immune disease. If our family medical history hadn't been enough to dissuade me from signing him up, if I knew how damaging concussions and sub-concussive hits were, the emphasis the coaches placed on hitting as hard as possible during tackle drills would have caused me to pull him from the program. I did not like how practices were conducted, but didn't understand the danger my son was in. I had considered pulling him from the program, but was concerned he would feel like a failure and worried that the kids at school would tease him.

It was only after my son sustained his concussion that I realized children his age would always make tackling errors, and that if they were encouraged to hit as hard as possible, they would end up paying a big price for those errors. A price no child should be asked to pay. In October of 2011, a five year old football player "experienced a head injury that sent him to the hospital in critical condition where he went into a coma." The Director for Trauma Services at Queens Medical Center, Dr. Caesar Ursic, "warns that a bump, blow or jolt to the head can do more than sideline a player for a season. ‘Some of the problems would be learning deficits, kids may not do well in school.'"