During a recent training session, my daughter, a competitive figure skater, fell while executing a spin and hit the back of her head on the ice. She was only about 30 minutes into a three-hour training session. She left the ice, rested for a bit, and went back to skating. She would train for another two hours, then travel to a second rink about an hour away to work with another coach; at the risk of sounding overdramatic, neither she nor her caretakers knew that she was, in fact, risking her life. I am telling this story because for me, my daughter, and others involved, it has been a learning experience.
I was at work while my daughter was at skating camp. With competitions and tests coming up, she was taking advantage of an opportunity for extra training time. She was injured around 10 a.m. The reason she didn't call me to tell me what happened, she explains, is that she didn't think it was a big deal and she only had a headache. Her coach tells me she too did not think it was serious because she was not close enough to appreciate the significance of the impact, and because my daughter downplayed it.
It would be another 10 hours before my daughter walked in the front door. It took another hour still for her to tell me what happened: "Mom, I fell and hit my head on the ice and now I have a headache."
I launched into a battery of questions that had her head spinning--again. When did it happen? Where exactly on your head did the impact occur? Let me feel it. Did you pass out? Why didn't you tell me? How hard did you hit your head? Hit my hand using the same force that your head did when it hit the ice.
Of course, like earlier in the day at the rink, she was downplaying it: "Not that hard," she kept insisting. But she had a headache, which she also had several other times throughout the day (but didn't tell anyone). I grabbed a flashlight and started shining it in her eyes. "What are you looking for?" my husband asked. I had no idea, "but they do this in the movies." I learned later that one sign of concussion is different-sized pupils. Her pupils were slightly different in size that night.
I had no experience with concussion. I was concerned and angry. Why was I finding out now? Could it be serious? Am I overreacting? When she proceeded to tell me that her neck also hurt, there would be no more contemplating. We were on our way to a local emergency room.
The pleasant E.R. doctor saw her quickly, asked some questions and did a brief exam. Afterward he assured me that my child would be fine; that there are many cautious moms out there like me who bring there kids in for bumps on the head; and that the she has a greater likelihood of getting cancer from a CT scan than there is a risk that she has bleeding in the brain. Uh, okay. We were out of there in an hour. I felt reassured. Never did the doctor say she had a concussion. In fact, when she mentioned that she was planning a trip to the water park the next day, Doc told her to go and have a great time, as long as she felt up to it. "If it makes you feel better mom, you can wake her up every couple of hours to check on her, but it'll probably just make her mad," he added.
It wasn't until I got home that I realized that the doctor diagnosed her with a concussion, because the discharge papers told me how to treat a concussion and what symptoms to watch for that would cause us to go back to the hospital.
I could not fathom why a doctor who apparently was diagnosing my child with a concussion would tell said child that it was okay to go to a water park the very next morning, where fast slides whip riders around in hard plastic tubes before launching them into the air and into a pool. And why wasn't the diagnosis more clear? I eighty-sixed the water park-wasn't happening. I still didn't know much about concussions, but I knew that just didn't sound right. Suddenly I was not feeling reassured about her condition, or the emergency room doctor.
My instinct proved accurate when we followed-up with the pediatrician. This time, the doctor did a much more thorough exam and clearly indicated to us that she had a concussion and the dangers associated with such an injury. No activity, no skating, and certainly no water parks in her future until she was at least one full week symptom-free. After our second follow-up, we were referred to a neurologist because my child was 13 days-post injury and still suffering from headaches.
In my research of concussions since our visit to the E.R., it seems that her pediatrician is right on. This is not an injury that should be taken lightly. Research indicates that if you suffer a blow to the head after having previously suffered a concussion, you are more likely to suffer more serious, or permanent, damage to the brain, as concussions may be cumulative. There is even a chance of death from a second blow to the head if one is still suffering effects of the first concussion.
When we first met with the pediatrician, she specifically said, "Please tell me you did not go back on the ice to skate after (the injury)." To drive the point home, the doctor told my daughter a story about a young football player who went back on the field before he was fully healed from a previous concussion and how a second blow to the head on the field killed him. Point driven-for both of us.
The idea that my daughter was so vulnerable in the hours that she continued to practice after her injury without anyone realizing the severity of the situation was troubling. She risked a second fall by continuing to skate. And because she and her coach neglected to tell anyone, her caretakers didn't even know the vulnerable state she was in when she skated later in the day.
Thankfully, my child is getting the treatment that she needs (rest, regular visits to the doctor, and follow-up with a neurologist), and the coaches and staff at her rink are getting schooled about the seriousness of head injuries; new policies are being established, including immediate removal of any injured skater, immediate medical attention if needed, and mandatory parental contact.
I hope sincerely that this article helps to inform parents that their instincts should not be ignored, that they should use caution if their kids suffer a head injury, and that they should ensure that their kids' sports programs have established policy on how coaches are to respond in situations where an athlete suffers an injury to the head.