Teen athletes suffer long-term effects of concussions

Maryland might change rules in attempt to prevent such injuries

  • Ben Matthews (left) and Ryan Simonds drill on the first day of pre-season practice for the Atholton High School football team. Kyle Schmitt, the coach at Atholton, has a conservative approach to training and only has his kids wear full gear once a week. “We limit hitting. We just don’t beat our kids up,” he said. “We stress the mental portion of the game rather than knocking heads.”
Ben Matthews (left) and Ryan Simonds drill on the first day of… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
September 19, 2012|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

When Beth Kennedy's head hit the ice hard, she was stunned. The teen got up slowly, skated to her hockey team's bench and asked her rec league coach if she could sit out for a bit. But she returned to the heat of the tournament game a few minutes later.

"As soon as it ended and I took my helmet off, I had this surging headache," Beth says of the March game.

Still, no one questioned whether she had a concussion. Her mother, sitting high in the stands, didn't see what had happened when her daughter collided with another player, and she didn't recognize the warning signs of a brain injury.

So, despite the headache, Beth — one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Maryland youngsters to suffer sports-related brain injuries this year — played again the next day for the York Lady Ice Devils in a tournament sponsored by the Baltimore Youth Hockey Club.

With national attention on the issue of concussions in the NFL, Marylanders are wrestling over the protocols needed to reduce such injuries, which can cause lasting brain damage. The state does not have statistics on the scope of the problem, but nationally 248,000 people under age 19 were treated in emergency rooms in 2009 for a sports-related nonfatal traumatic brain injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Over the next several months, a task force created by the Maryland state school board will gather research and public comment as it considers new regulations to prevent concussions. School board members say they will not shy away from taking unpopular steps, including placing limits on practices in football or other sports.

Meanwhile, the national governing body for youth football recently launched Heads Up Football, a resource for parents, coaches and players on concussions and related issues. The NFL and its partners also have committed about $1 million to provide new helmets to youth football players in low-income communities.

The state board approved emergency rules in July requiring that coaches be trained and parents receive information about concussions. Students also must be removed from a game if the coach suspects a concussion and aren't allowed back in until they have been cleared by a medical professional.

Private schools are likely to follow the state's rules, said Rick Diggs, executive director of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association. Recreational league games played on public school grounds will also come under the new regulations.

Still, there is a wide disparity in the way concussions are addressed — even among Maryland localities. And while experts say there is general agreement about the assessment and treatment of concussions, Beth and her mother say they were uninformed about how devastating a concussion could be and how it should be treated.

After getting hurt, Beth felt half-removed from the world. Concentrating on homework or in class at Maryvale Preparatory School gave her a headache. Even engaging in teenage chatter with friends made her feel ill. After school, she would sleep until 9 p.m, have dinner and sleep until morning.

Sharon Kennedy said Maryvale's athletic trainer finally diagnosed Beth's concussion, in part by comparing results on memory and mental agility tests, and referred her to a doctor. "The tough thing about this is it is not a skinned knee that needs stitches," she said.

Beth's recovery took months. Only recently did she take a hockey stick in her hands to practice again, the first time she had been allowed to play since the St. Patrick's Day injury.

Beth knows she was lucky that she wasn't hit again during the tournament, because another blow to her head could have had devastating consequences. Players who suffer a second concussion before the first one is healed can endure long-term effects.

Derek Sheely, a Frostburg University football player, died last August during preseason training after he sustained what doctors believe were two concussions in a matter of days. Derek had never had a documented concussion before he went to college last year, according to his mother, Kristen L. Sheely.

The Sheelys talked to their son the night before the second concussion, and he sounded fine and didn't mention an injury. The next day they were racing to a hospital.

He was hit, ran off the field and then ran another play. He "ran to the sideline and said he didn't feel well. He went down to his knees, and he didn't get up. They called 911," Kristen Sheely said. After two operations, Derek died about a week later.

"It is still unbelievable to us. ... This shouldn't have happened," she said.

The Sheelys have set up a foundation to help educate people about concussions. "I don't want to put children in bubbles, but I think you need to be smart and you need to be educated. I would give anything to have Derek back," she said.

'Using your brain hurts it'

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