Rachel Havens shouldn’t have returned to the soccer field in the fall of 2011.
A Peachtree Ridge High School freshman at the time, she had taken a knock to the head the previous spring and had never really healed from that impact. But, as her mother says, “My daughter is a beast on the field.”
In a game last November, Rachel, who lives in Lawrenceville, and another player collided and her head bounced off the ground. She played on for another 25 minutes.
She did not go back in after halftime and when her mother, Paige Havens, approached her, she saw “the most eerie, empty look in her eye.”
“She had no idea who I was,” Havens said.
Rachel’s first concussion from the previous April had been underestimated and as a result, the damage from the November blow was “exponentially worse,” her mother said, leading to problems concentrating and a four-month headache.
That “second-impact syndrome” — a second concussion sustained before the first has had time to heal — is the key issue in legislation before the state General Assembly.
House Bill 284 would require coaches, trainers and others who work with student-athletes to establish a concussion management plan, learn the signs of concussion and provide concussion education to parents and students. It would also require students who show symptoms of concussion to be cleared by a health professional before returning to play.
In 2010, 12,198 Georgia children ages 5-18 sustained non-vehicle-related head injuries, according to the Georgia Concussion Coalition. Many of those injuries occurred during athletic competition or practice, the group believes, putting them at risk.
The Georgia legislation is supported by the NFL, which is facing multiple lawsuits from players claiming concussions.
Rollin Downs, a senior adviser at McKenna Long and Aldridge representing the NFL in Georgia, said 43 other states have adopted similar “return to play” legislation.
This is not the first attempt to put such a law in place in Georgia. A similar bill was defeated last year amid criticism that it increased liability for schools.
“It was a concern and I did resolve that issue,” with language that protects school boards, governing boards and volunteers from legal action, said the sponsor of the new bill, Rep. Jimmy Pruett, R-Eastman. Pruett said Thursday he expected the bill to go to the Senate perhaps on Wednesday.
Schools and recreation centers need to be able to recognize the signs of concussion well enough to know when to take a player out of a game, said Stephanie Lotti, director of data and public policy for the state’s Brain and Spinal Injury Trust Fund Commission. There are simple tests that reveal the severity of an impact, but many coaches are using outdated techniques, she said.
“Holding up three fingers isn’t a good standard and never was,” she said.
Cassie Bruce of Duluth believes her 16-year-old son Caleb had unrecognized earlier trauma when he played in a big football game against the school’s rival last fall.
The defensive lineman delivered good hits throughout the game, but even after a big tackle that sent him and his opponent to the ground, he popped right back up, she said.
Later he complained of headaches, an inability to concentrate and lethargy. At school he found himself “blanking out.” If she had known what to look for, said Bruce, “I would have pulled him out of school immediately. I wouldn’t have told him to take an Advil and man up.”
Also, she said, his teachers should have seen red flags when her straight-A student started falling asleep in class and missing assignments.
Today Caleb has multiple therapy sessions and is working toward the ability to tolerate a complete day of school.
Requiring tougher standards for return to play and training in recognizing signs of concussion could have made a difference for Rachel Havens.
After the November injury, Rachel couldn’t complete simple tasks at school and could barely make it through two hours of classes. Loud sounds and bright lights triggered distress, so her family lived in darkness. Sixteen months later, she is still working to overcome the damage.
She also is suffering post-traumatic problems brought on by the stress of the ordeal.
“I periodically experience some blindness,” said Rachel, who is now 15 and a sophomore. “I experience the loss of feelings in my legs, to where I have to be in a wheelchair.”
Paige Havens said, “If she had been properly guided through the first concussion, the second one would not have been as severe.”
Rachel’s goal is to complete college, seek a degree in physical therapy and be able to help other students like herself.
What would she tell a girl whose concussion has turned her life upside down?
“I’d say it’s hard to see past what’s going on that day,” said Rachel, “but no matter what’s happening, you can’t let it get you down. You’ve got to keep on pushing on.”
SIGNS OF CONCUSSION
The Georgia Concussion Coalition offered this guide to the warning signs of a concussion, prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coaches, teachers and parents should watch to see if the student:
• Appears dazed or stunned
• Is confused about assignment or position
• Forgets an instruction
• Is unsure of game, score, or opponent
• Moves clumsily
• Answers questions slowly
• Loses consciousness (even briefly)
• Shows mood, behavior, or personality changes
• Can’t recall events prior to hit or fall
• Can’t recall events after hit or fall
Student athletes should monitor their own symptoms as well, added the CDC, and watch for these symptoms:
• Headache or “pressure” in head
• Nausea or vomiting
• Balance problems or dizziness
• Double or blurry vision
• Sensitivity to light
• Sensitivity to noise
• Feeling sluggish, hazy, foggy or groggy
• Concentration or memory problems
For more information: www.cdc.gov/concussion/sports/recognize.html