After four months and five days, my daughter finally received medical clearance from her doctor following a concussion. The original diagnosis, mild traumatic brain injury, came after she hit her head on the ice during figure skating practice. At the time I had no idea the significance of her injury or how long it would take for her to heal. I have discovered that most people seem uninformed, like I was, when it comes to brain injury. I have since been educated on brain injury, its symptoms, and its treatment.
During those four months and five days, my daughter saw several different doctors: An emergency room physician, her pediatrician, a neurologist, an orthopedic concussion specialist, and a physical therapist. Her pediatrician was the first to hammer home the seriousness of concussion and the necessity to be symptom-free before receiving clearance for sport and activity. Her concussion specialist taught her how to monitor and record her symptoms and administered tests to determine the cognitive impact of her injury. Her main symptom was headache, which she experienced daily. She was also irritable and had some minor cognitive effects related to memory and processing speed. She would have to go seven days without any of these symptoms before her doctor would allow her to return to her sport or any other physical play.
In addition to physical restrictions, her doctor provided a comprehensive list of academic accommodations that would be required of her school to ensure that school work did not exacerbate her symptoms thereby delaying recovery. Those accommodations included class breaks if needed, assistance with note taking, extra time on tests and quizzes, and restrictions on homework time. The required a meeting with school officials and teachers to put together a plan to ensure that her academic and physical needs were met. I learned that federal law actually requires such a meeting to put together a plan to protect the student's health and academic rights.
The main course of treatment for concussion, or post-concussive disorder, is resting the body and resting the brain. That meant, in addition to limitations on activity, there were limitations on television, texting, and computer time. Anyone who has a teenager can imagine the challenge that these restrictions presented. It helped, though, that my daughter was anxious to get back to skating, so she was moderately compliant. Nonetheless, her recovery took so long that she missed out on a lot of skating events and other end-of-summer fun.
After going through all of this with my daughter, I found that I've been much more in-tune to any news related to concussion. I watched with disappointment as professional football teams put players back in the game after suffering an obvious head injury. One thing that I learned with my daughter's injury was that returning to play before being asymptomatic and medically cleared puts an athlete at risk of serious or permanent brain damage or even death if another head injury occurs. Surely the presumably highly paid NFL sideline physicians knew this. That tells me that some would rather put the game before the health of its participants.
It's not just the coaches that are guilty of sending athletes back to play prematurely. A friend who coaches girls' basketball told me of a time when one of his players suffered a head injury and her father was yelling from the sidelines for her to get back in the game. My friend described how he was feeling pressure to put her back in the game despite his concerns. However, after his player admitted to certain symptoms, he sidelined her and refused to put her back in despite the ignorant parent's protest.
Thankfully, scenarios like these will no longer play out the same way in New Jersey schools. It will no longer be coaches (who often feel the pressure to return their players to the game) that will have to make the decisions. Two days prior to my daughter receiving final medical clearance from her doctor, New Jersey's Governor signed a bill into law that requires comprehensive concussion prevention and treatment policies for school athletics. It requires that people involved with student athletics receive the most up-to-date information and best practices recommendations to ensure the health and safety of their athletes. Athletes will no longer be allowed to return to play without physician clearance if they show signs of head injury. Unfortunately, where this legislation falls short is that it applies only to school athletics and not private programs like skating and gymnastics. That doesn't mean, however, that parents cannot get involved in ensuring that these private programs have similar policies in place.
In passing the new sport's related head injury law, New Jersey lawmakers acknowledged the need to change the mind-set regarding head injury in sports. The bottom line is that head injury can have serious, permanent, and fatal consequences and needs to be taken just as seriously (if not more) than torn muscles and broken bones.