Brain injuries; the discreet captorFriday, June 17, 2011 By Corina Gallardo
Each day after school, Lindsay Novak sits at a familiar place beside a cheer mat and watches her Rincon/University High School cheer squad teammates perform flips and fly through the air. Novak was once a part of these routines, but after a devastating brain injury during a practice session last year, she is now relegated to watch longingly from the sidelines. She among thousands of student athletes who have sustained brain injuries during sports activities each year. Novak awakes each morning around and after she styles her hair just right, she swallows a single pill to control her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It is a daily reminder of her past trauma. Her four-person stunt group was practicing tossing another cheerleader into the air to execute a full twist when Novak was injured. Novak and a fellow cheerleader prepared to catch the flyer, who twirled into their arms, and kicked Novak squarely in the face. The impact broke Novak’s nose and caused a concussion. Novak strains to read street signs as she drives to school and hopes that her grueling headaches will not accompany her. She squints to see the words flooding her textbooks and battles to stay focused enough to absorb class lectures. About 300,000 sports-related injuries occur in the United States each year. Of those, 60,000 are high school students, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The majorities of high school students’ brain injuries do not involve skull penetration and are not visibly apparent. They often go unnoticed, according to the Brain Injury Association of Prince Edward Island. “Because of the accident I was no longer able to do things I loved in cheerleading like tumbling or stunting,” Novak said. Sydney Rice, a doctor specializing in brain injuries and development pediatrics, said brain injuries in student athletes most commonly include concussions, bruising of the brain or bleeding in the main part of the brain. The injuries often cause long-term memory loss, agitation, inattention, pituitary injuries that can lead to poor growth, and lack of energy. Each requires different medical treatment. Teachers and coaches often mistake a brain injury for a student acting out, Rice said. To avoid those misunderstandings, it is important that educators be informed about brain injuries. “I think many teachers and coaches don’t believe it is a real injury,” Rice said. Had the supervisors been more educated, Novak believes they may have been able to spot her injury sooner. “My teacher and coach were supportive of me, but I wish they would have been more informed,” Novak said. Rincon High School’s cornerback and wide receiver Michael MacKenn, 17, has suffered three concussions in football. McKenna has trouble with comprehension, focusing and remembering information, even six months after his last concussion. “People don’t understand how I think,” he said. “It’s difficult to learn new things, and it’s hard to find jobs.” Despite his injuries, MacKenna continues to play football. In Arizona, coaches are required to take an online course on head injuries by the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which oversees high school sports in the state. Rincon High School football coach Nate Gahn has taken the course. He keeps a look-out for certain signs that would indicate if any of his players have a concussion. “It could be either from an extreme hit in football or just a minor, little hit,” Gahn said. The longer a concussion goes unobserved, the more devastating the results can be. In 2006, University of Arizona softball catcher Stacie Chambers was hit in the mouth with a fly ball and suffered a brain injury. She was not advised to get help from a medical specialist and her brain trauma went unnoticed for several months before she received treatment. New research is being done to help improve treatment of brain injuries affect athletes. “Education will help,and I think awareness is improving,” Rice said.