A Parent’s Role
Chris Turpen, certified athletic trainer (ATC) and head trainer of Oxford Area High School in Pennsylvania, who is one of the ambassadors for stopconcussions.com, shares his experience dealing with parents of injured athletes.
I saw the whole thing happen. It was a fifty-fifty ball in a soccer game. Both players went airborne, and instead of striking the ball with his head, a player struck his opponent in the face. Both players went down in a heap, one of them motionless and the other one writhing in obvious pain on the ground, holding his face in his hands. Play was stopped while I ran out onto the field and evaluated both players for injuries. I determined that the athlete from my school had a concussion, and the kid from the other school had a facial laceration that required sutures. Both were removed from the game, and play continued.
To me, it was just another day at work. No surprise really, to see soccer players crack heads with each other. It happens. After I removed the athletes from competition, I called the parents of the kid who needed stitches, gave them directions to the hospital their son was going to, and was thanked for my help. Again, no surprise. The surprise came when the father of the athlete with the concussion told me that he didn’t care what I thought, and that he wanted his kid put back in the game. I described to the father the many symptoms his kid was experiencing: dizziness, headache, sensitivity to light and noise, blurred vision, balance issues and amnesia They were all classic signs of concussion. The kid no doubt had the injury, and to me, letting him rest from the field was a no-brainer. But the parent insisted that his son was fine and that he be allowed to return to play.
I put my foot down and refused to allow the boy to return, insisting that he have written clearance from a physician before he be allowed to play. The potential risk to the child was tremendous, as was the liability to the school district. To the credit of my high school administration, they agreed and the injured athlete was kept out. However, this was not the end of the tale.
The next day, the father of the boy was in the high school office, complaining that his son wasn’t being treated fairly and that I had no right to remove him from the game. After all, he claimed, I was just an athletic trainer and not a doctor. He was the parent and the one who made decisions for his son. Eventually, he was allowed to sign a waiver, releasing me and the school district from all liability should his son sustain injury secondary to his concussion. The waiver stated that the parent had been made aware of his child’s remaining symptoms and of the risks associated with early return to play. It also stated that he was returning his son to the playing field against my medical advice and that of my supervising physician. The events were documented and kept in the boy’s medical record.
The following day there was another soccer game. When I arrived at work, I saw that the father had left me an email and phone message reminding me that his son was going to play that afternoon. I chose not to respond to the messages and went to the coach of the athlete in question. It didn’t take much persuading to convince the coach that the kid involved should not play.
The game started and the kid sat on the bench. The father soon approached and started asking why his son wasn’t playing. Fortunately, our school district has a policy prohibiting parents from approaching coaches before, during or after a game, and also provides a time and place for such conversations to take place. The parent backed off and the child sat the game.
By the next day, the father’s common sense had finally kicked in. He stopped by the school again, only this time to thank me for standing my ground, and also to thank the coach for handling things the way he did. The father opened up to the fact that even though his son wasn’t bleeding and had no broken bones or other obvious wounds, he was still injured and required recovery time. In the end, the parent received reliable information about his son’s concussion, information about the signs and symptoms to look for and monitor during the boy’s recovery, and a general outline for his return to play. Ultimately, this situation worked out favorably for everyone. The athlete recovered and was back playing in just over two weeks. He has had no recurrence of brain injury.
Things are a bit different working at the high school level. When injury occurs, parents have to be immediately notified and informed about the events surrounding their child’s particular situation. This is true with all injuries but is especially true when it comes to brain or spinal injury. I’ve seen parents make decisions for their children that have personally astounded me. I have seen parents let the importance of a game outweigh the safety of their child and have also seen parents and coaches alike question the validity of a concussion because of the absence of crutches, medical slings or obvious injuries. In a few cases, I have even seen parents ignore symptoms of concussions and medical recommendations, insisting their child be allowed to play.
Fear not, because my above account is not meant to suggest that this situation happens regularly. In fact, it is very rare. I have been the first responder and first medical provider to evaluate well over one hundred concussions and have assisted in dozens more. The vast majority of those cases were managed with the help of concerned parents and coaches whose only thoughts were of love of the child, not love of the sport. This above all else is the starting point for successful recovery.
As a parent, you have a responsibility to protect your child, so do it! There is no game, at any level, played in any place, under any circumstance, that is worth playing if it holds the potential for the permanent injury of your child. This is especially true of brain injuries. The concerns are universal from parents of T-ball players to parents of professional NFL stars. Your child will still get an award and pizza party at the end of the season if they sit out recovering from a concussion, and their name still goes on Lord Stanley’s Cup even if they missed half of the season because they did the right thing by waiting until all symptoms disappeared before returning to play.
As the father of three active boys who all play sports, including football and wrestling, I have also had to be on the parent side of concussions. I went from the familiar position of medical provider to the uncomfortable position of worried parent in a single phone call. I found myself being the one paying attention to potential red flags following a concussion, instead of advising a parent on what to look for.
From injury to a return to full contact, my son’s concussion experience lasted 12 days. If you were to ask him, that was about 11 days too long, and he was “chomping at the bit” to get back out and play. He didn’t want to let his team down. As proud as I was to see such admirable qualities as loyalty and team spirit in my son, I had to keep reminding myself, and him, that his duty to the team was to get better, and he wasn’t going to do that by going back too soon and risking re-injury, or worse.
My child’s case will differ from your child’s case, and when all of the variables are considered, no two concussions are the same. However, the management strategy should be. With traumatic brain injury, it is always better to err on the side of caution. Don’t be in a hurry to have your kid back out on the field, court or ice. It really is better to miss a game or two than a whole season. Second impact syndrome is no joke.
Many of us remember back in the day, when a kid got a “dinger” at football practice and kept playing after the cobwebs cleared. That’s how I received my first concussion. We all remember getting inaccurate information like, “If you don’t lose consciousness, it isn’t a concussion,” or the old “How many fingers?” question. These dated methods are now viewed as wrong. Advances in science and medicine have shown us that even small, repetitive traumas to the brain can be directly linked to CTE.
If we, the parents, as well as sports fans, coaches, players, media, team owners, administrators, and everyone involved with athletics really, want to be proactive with concussions, we have to look at what our kids learn about sports and influence the outcomes when the children are young. Our kids see the big hits and collisions in pro sports. If they missed seeing it on TV, they hear about it in the locker room the next day or see it on SportsCenter replays. And you know these channels always show hits and plays over and over—remember Joe Theismann’s broken leg?
After the kids see these glorified hits, they go out on a football field and try to make a collision instead of making a tackle, or skate up to a person on the boards and check the player as hard as possible without ever making a play on the puck. It’s what kids have seen on TV and in person, so it’s how they think the game should be played. Rarely is there any actual intent to cause injury, but injury happens and is all too often rationalized as part of play. Whether or not there is actual intent in the young athlete’s mind, harm does occur.
Change starts at our dinner tables. It starts at school board meetings and coaching clinics. It starts in our backyards. It starts by changing the way we see the game. The football player who makes a collision but not a tackle watches his opponent run away from the hit to score a touchdown. Did he do the right thing? No. The hockey player gets called for boarding and sits for two minutes. During the power play, a goal is scored. Did the player make the right decision to board him? No. That is what should and needs to be reinforced for young players.
There was a day, it’s awful to say, when a guy stumbling off the field was a funny thing. There were a lot of things that had no place in the game.
–former NFLer John Lynch
It’s true. Some things do not have a place in sports, and improper response to the scourge of concussions is certainly one of them. If your child sustains a concussion, take charge and fight for what’s best for your child. There are groups and organizations that exist to help you fight the fight against this invisible injury. Stopconcussions.com, MomsTeam.com, Shift Concussion Management…the list is growing. Local organizations are being formed all over North America, and more concussion specialists are available than ever before. Reach out for help anytime you need it. There are many people waiting for a chance to help. We’re there for you.
Story written by Keith Primeau & Kerry Goulet