February 16, 2009
Headfirst Tackle Hammers Brain
By Susan Christensen
When Wesley Ward awakened from a nine–day coma, the 16-year-old thought he had been in a car wreck. But the head-on collision that bounced his brain like a bobbled pass actually happened on a football field.
During an April 30 practice at Central Hinds Academy in Raymond, the sophomore linebacker crashed helmets with a teammate who was 60 pounds heavier. In that moment, he joined the estimated 63,000 high school athletes who sustain brain injuries each year.
The National Athletic Trainers’ Association says 4 percent of high school and collegiate football players are diagnosed with concussions each year, and most are not life-threatening. But as recently as October, a New Jersey 16-year-old died of a brain hemorrhage following a junior varsity game.
It’s a fate Randy and Carolyn Ward never imagined, even though they knew their son could get hurt playing football. “You always worry about broken bones,” said Wesley’s mom. “But I had never heard of a brain injury. It was pretty devastating to get that phone call from the school.”
When Wesley got up from the collision, he tried to continue practice. But as his head began to throb and his vision blurred, he turned to a friend and said: “I’m messed up. Something isn’t right.”
A coach suspected dehydration and told Wesley to get a drink. But when he threw up and passed out, Wesley was rushed to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, where doctors discovered a ruptured blood vessel in his brain. That night, surgeons removed a portion of Wesley’s skull to give his swelling brain room to expand.
When Wesley arrived at Methodist Rehabilitation Center 13 days later, he was still on a feeding tube and couldn’t sit up or walk.
“We went from milestone to milestone,” remembers his dad. “Is he going to wake up? Is he going to open his eyes? Is he going to move anything? We feel blessed he has come along as far as he has. I think it has been a remarkable recovery.”
“It’s just amazing what Methodist Rehab did for him,” said his mom. “He walked out without a wheelchair on June 25.”
Wesley is continuing his progress at Quest, Methodist Rehab’s outpatient community integration program for brain injury survivors. Three days a week, he throws himself into therapy with the same intensity he used to devote to football drills. “He has always been the type to give it his all,” said his dad. “The coach would say he was always the last one to come out of the weight room.”
Wesley’s goal is to graduate with his class. Through speech therapy and counseling, he is working on regaining the memory, cognition, language and social skills necessary for a full-time return to the classroom. And through occupational and physical therapy, he is striving to overcome the weakness and partial paralysis in his right hand and foot.
“One of his goals was to be able to throw a football for his dog,” said Methodist Rehab physical therapist Patricia Oyarce. So she and physical therapist Rachel Dear worked together on a number of exercises to suit Wesley’s macho sensibilities, including football-style agility drills. “When he came, he was not able to do high-level skills,” Oyarce said. “Now he is able to run, skip and jump.”
While Wesley would be happy to run back on the football field, his doctors have deemed it too dangerous. Football players with brain injuries are six times as likely to sustain new injuries. And even a seemingly mild concussion can put players at risk for second-impact syndrome – the potentially deadly consequence of taking another jarring hit after an initial injury to the brain.
“Most of those result in death or permanent disability,” said Frederick Mueller, Ph.D., director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. “There was a kid in North Carolina hit on a Wednesday, who didn’t have an athletic trainer to check him out. The kid came back and said he felt fine and got hit again on Friday. He died on Saturday.”
Such tragic outcomes mean it’s more important than ever for parents and coaches to be well-versed on the symptoms of brain injury and to make sure athletes aren’t allowed to jeopardize their health.
Recognition of traumatic brain injury is as important as prevention,” said Dr. Stuart Yablon, former director of the brain injury program at Methodist Rehab. “Fear of being kept from playing provides an incentive for the student athlete to withhold information regarding symptoms, or even deny the existence of symptoms related to a possible mild traumatic brain injury.”
The Brain Injury Association said players should notify their coaches and see a physician if they experience headache, nausea, confusion, dizziness or vomiting. And to prevent such injuries in the first place, safety experts say players should always keep their heads up when blocking or tackling.
It’s a message Wesley plans to pass on to any son he might have. Despite his injuries, he still hopes his child would want to play the sport. “I’m going to tell my son to play football because it teaches you teamwork and how to fight adversity. It teaches you to be a man.”
Injury Prevention Tips
• Shoulder block and tackle with the head up.
• Do conditioning exercises to strengthen neck muscles.
• Never use the head or helmet as a battering ram when blocking, tackling and ball carrying. Ball carriers should not lower their heads when making contact with tacklers.
• Make sure all equipment—especially the helmet—is properly fitted.
Football officials and coaches should:
• Concentrate on helmet-face mask contact and call penalties on players who use improper blocking and tackling techniques.
• Ensure that a physician or someone who is qualified in emergency care is on the field during games or practice.
• Have a written emergency plan that addresses what will happen if a possible catastrophic head or neck injury occurs. Permanent disabilities can be caused if victims are improperly moved or transported after such injuries.
• When a player experiences signs of head trauma – loss of consciousness, visual disturbance, headache, inability to walk correctly, obvious disorientation or memory loss – he should receive immediate medical attention and not be allowed to return to the game or practice.
*Source: National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research
Quest, Methodist Rehab's community integration program for brain injury survivors, helped Wesley Ward get back to a favorite activity -- throwing the football to his dog.