Investigative News: High impact: Student-athlete concussions get high-priority, NCAA-mandated care

Kathryn Nicolai, Investigative News Editor

Concussions are a prevalent topic of conversation among all athletes, especially those who play at the collegiate level.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1.6 to 3.8 million concussions occur in sports and recreational activities annually, not including a vast number of individuals who do not report or seek medical assistance for mild or moderate traumatic brain injury.

In 2011, four former student-athletes who played football and soccer filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of themselves and other former and current student-athletes against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for concussion management negligence and concealment of brain trauma information.

The NCAA denies the alleged liability and wrongdoing, but agreed to settle the lawsuit by paying $75 million to resolve the litigation, $70 million of which will go toward a medical monitoring program for college athletes. The program will provide medical evaluations for eligible current and former athletes. Evaluation will include neurological examination, neuropsychological examination, mood and behavioral evaluation, and ancillary testing. On July 15, 2016, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted preliminary approval of the settlement offered by the NCAA. On May 5, 2017, a final hearing will take place to decide if the settlement is fair.

As stated in the Patriot League’s Concussion Management Guidelines, “Each Patriot League institution will develop and place on file a concussion management plan per NCAA policies.”

“Bucknell’s athletic training staff work under the supervision and operating policies of professional medical staff from Geisinger to manage the care of student-athletes in the event of an injury, including concussion,” Deputy Director of Athletics Tim Pavlechko said.

The University’s Concussion Management Plan can be found online and details that students must sign documents that confirm they have read and understand provided materials on concussion education. It also asserts that University staff and coaches must annually be tested on concussion awareness, baseline testing, and the procedures concerning prevention, diagnosis, evaluation, and returning to play.

“All first-year intercollegiate student-athletes complete a baseline evaluation. Additionally, those returning student-athletes with a previous concussion will be baseline tested prior to the start of his/her sport the following year,” Pavlechko said.

Men’s basketball player Bruce Moore ’20 was diagnosed with a concussion in early November, a week after the team’s first game.

“I was in practice going for a loose ball and my teammate’s head banged into my face […] I was diagnosed with a mildly severe concussion by doing balance, memory, coordination and various other exercises,” Moore said.

After his diagnosis Moore visited his athletic trainer on a daily basis “to do some tests and recovery procedures. I would also go to the student health offices to talk to a doctor and also do some tests,” Moore said.

The concussion symptoms Moore suffered from included nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, memory loss, and lack of balance. Within a week, according to Moore, he was able to pass the concussion baseline test and was cleared to start playing again. Moore commends the staff he worked with while concussed.

“Within a week I was back on the court playing again and was able to play in my first collegiate game. I’m grateful for them,” Moore said.

Carolyn Wan ’17 was on a spring training trip in Florida with the softball team when she suffered a concussion.

“I ran for the ball, dove forward, extended my body, caught the ball in midair, and hit my head directly on the cement below me,” Wan said.

After she did not immediately get up, Wan’s trainer ran onto the field to evaluate her. She was cleared to keep playing.

“Unfortunately, within a few minutes while I was batting, I hit the ball, ran to first base, and was hit in the head (while wearing a helmet) by a bad thrown from the opposing defense. After being struck in the head, I struggled to catch my balance. Immediately afterwards, my athletic trainer came out of the dugout again and pulled me out of the game immediately. For the rest of the day, I did not play and iced my forehead,” Wan said. She was not officially diagnosed with a concussion until the following morning.

Wan had experienced four concussions prior to this one. Every morning and night following her diagnosis, Wan completed a survey of questions evaluating the severity of her symptoms.

“I had to wait until all of my symptoms were gone, pass the online impact test, and then successfully complete a series of workouts that gradually increased in physical difficulty without experiencing any symptoms. If an athlete is doing one of these workouts and one of her/his symptoms reappears, they must stop, wait until it disappears, then start back at the first step again,” Wan said.

This concussion had a specifically strong impact on Wan.

“As a student-athlete, I experienced mild depression from my concussion for the first time. I consider myself a rational person, but I would experience mood swings and feelings of extreme sadness that I could not explain. In fact, I did not fully realize that I was experiencing depression until after it was all over,” Wan said.

During a soccer game earlier this fall, Lilly Courts ’20 went in for a tackle and collided with a player on the opposing team.

“I didn’t notice the side effects immediately, but about an hour after, I felt dizzy and nauseous, and got tested by our trainer and did not pass the concussion testing,” Courts said.

Courts’ concussion lasted a month, during which she suffered nausea, headaches, light sensitivity, and trouble focusing. After rest and many attempts at the concussion tests, an athletic trainer cleared Courts to play again.

“I think the school did an amazing job keeping me safe and healthy during a vulnerable time. They cared for me and did everything in their power to get me healthy,” Courts said.

Eleanor Hagan ’19 received a concussion during practice during the spring of her first year playing for the University’s women’s lacrosse team.

“I was also really disoriented and had a lot of trouble focusing. I would get over stimulated really easily so if I tried to fall asleep it would take me a very long time if I had just been around people talking or light and noises. Basically I was just walking around in a haze,” Hagan said.

For Hagan, the recovery process included seeing her trainer every day to evaluate her symptoms. Hagan was removed from both athletic and academic settings while she suffered from her concussion in order to recover.

“I was also given a letter from the dean excusing me from work and classes. I was cleared after a five-day return to play program after my symptoms subsided,” Hagan said.

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