Ask a Mom: Concussions are a Big Deal

We’re sitting it out this year.

For the first baseball season in 13 years, no son of mine will jog onto the field to take his position among the other purple-and-white-clad players from our little town in North Alabama. I sound dramatic, I know, but, well, it feels so…sad. This sit-out isn’t by choice.  My fifteen-year-old son, Ben, has been benched by a year-old concussion that didn’t heal.

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh no, more preaching about concussions and concussion protocol.” Maybe you even paid $12 to watch Will Smith fight the NFL about it, but you’re getting tired of hearing it. And, in fact, I felt that way, too.

Until we spent the last few months trying to find out what was wrong with Ben.

It started last year, near the end of the spring middle school season. After riding the bus with his team to a mid-week game, he crawled into the back to help unload equipment. As he leaned over the back seat, grabbed a bag, and lifted it, his head connected with the top of the bus’ backdoor. His teammates nearby heard the crack and saw Ben fall from the bus to the ground, where his head bounced off the pavement, as well. He remembers seeing stars; he remembers telling his coach he needed to throw up, and he remembers saying he “might not ought to play.”

When I got there, the team was in the dugout, but a couple of his teammates came out and told me Ben had hit his head and he had a headache. They laughed at the jokes he had made afterward. His coach left him in the lineup, batting leadoff. He stole a base he doesn’t remember stealing. He played the whole game, but he doesn’t remember it at all.

The part of the night I remember most is one that triggers my mom guilt.  I – Ben’s mother, his biggest fan, his protector, the person who would jump in front of a speeding bullet or between his head and a bus door if given the chance – I let him take a couple of Tylenol; then, because it was a cold night, I settled in with my quilt and propane heater to watch him play. I didn’t realize he had a concussion. I didn’t take him to the hospital. I don’t remember it ever occurring to me to do so.

Ben wears contact lenses, so when his vision was blurry a couple weeks after the bus incident, we assumed he needed new ones. In practice one day, the kid who hadn’t made an error in two seasons misjudged a fly ball, and it hit him on the head. His confidence began to wane as his batting average plummeted and he occasionally failed to make routine plays.

When the miserable spring season mercifully ended, we hoped for a better experience in summer ball, but it only got worse. His coach moved him from shortstop to first because he wasn’t making the plays, and even at first base he would sometimes miss a well-thrown ball. If he ever connected at the plate it was as beautiful as ever, but those connections were few and far between. Then one day, while playing first, he took a ball in the face from a strong-armed right fielder. We took him to the emergency room for X-rays; his nose wasn’t broken, but his spirit was.

School resumed, but Ben’s health seemed to be deteriorating. This scrappy kid who just the previous fall had excelled in cross country, practiced with his basketball team, trained for (and finished second in) a triathlon, and took karate lessons all at the same time, could suddenly barely make a couple-mile run with his cross country team without giving in to exhaustion.

Fatigue plagued him, and he continually complained about headaches, nausea, and even a fever. He was suddenly clumsy. We still couldn’t get his contact prescription adjusted correctly. He missed school.  He lost weight. He had insomnia. He was the grumpiest teenager ever known to man. It took months before we began to see all the symptoms were pieces of a puzzle that actually fit together.

When baseball workouts started in December, he still was having trouble with blurry vision. In class one day, he threw his head back laughing and collided with a block wall. A few days later, he came home and told me he was now afraid to throw, because the ball was doubling  and tripling as it came at him, so we suspended his baseball workouts and went to the eye doctor.

At his exam, our doctor confirmed he was seeing multiple images; his eyes were jumping around as he tried to focus. She couldn’t see why. She ordered an MRI and blood tests, convinced there was some health issue causing his vision problem. The blood work returned normal and the MRI showed nothing. She sighed in relief, because, while she hadn’t shared it with us beforehand, she had been certain he had a tumor, a mass, or some terminal condition.

She found us a new family doctor and passed all of the information onto her. Within a few minutes of talking to Ben at our first appointment, the doctor concluded that all of his problems were pointing to “post-concussive syndrome.”

This syndrome, I learned, is a pretty standard condition stemming from an unhealed concussion. A concussion is literally an injury to the brain, and not allowing the brain to heal can cause all kinds of problems. Concussions, unlike arm or leg injuries, aren’t visible. They don’t even show up on MRI exams. Suddenly, for us, it all made sense. Not only did Ben not rest after the first injury, he continued to injure himself over and over again. The subsequent blows to his head might not have been serious otherwise, but with an unhealed concussion already in place, they were significant, so his brain did its best to shut down his body.

At a visit with the Concussion Center at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, we realized that Ben couldn’t even focus both of his eyes on one object without it making him dizzy and nauseated. He couldn’t stand on one leg without falling over. His balance was compromised and his muscles were weak. But we also learned that there are treatments for all of that, and we started therapy to regain his balance, vision, and strength. His doctor says it will likely be 10 to 12 weeks before she will release him to play sports again, but that’s a small price to pay for the hope that he will recover.

One of Ben’s teammates, a sophomore named Kane, was diagnosed with leukemia a little over a year ago. He has missed football and two baseball seasons literally fighting for his life, and he has inspired all of his teammates and our community along the way. What we’ve been through is small compared to what Kane and his family have endured, so please don’t think we don’t have this experience in perspective.  We are lucky to have found out what Ben’s problems came from and to have a plan to fix t hem. And there are positives: He’s lost his freshman year, but at least it wasn’t his junior or senior year. He may have to fight harder for his position next year after missing a season, but his spirit is renewed and he’s the kind of person who will he’ll give it all he’s got and come back strong.

Since Ben’s diagnosis, I’ve met several other parents whose children have had similar experiences. One mom’s stellar football player was told not to stand too close to the team trainer after taking a particularly hard hit on the field. He was so addled that didn’t know where he was, but the coach needed him for that last quarter, and he didn’t want the trainer to pull him out of the game.

Another friend allowed her daughter to attend cheer practice, even though she had suffered a concussion the week before, because the cheer coach insisted she needed to learn new chants. My friend left her daughter with specific instructions that she was not to participate, only watch.

When she returned to pick her up, she learned the coach had asked the injured teen to “help” with stunts, during which she took another blow to the head from a teammate’s elbow. Their stories of months-long recovery were similar to Ben’s:  weeks of total rest, months of no sports. The one thing these – and other post-concussive cases – have in common? THEY POSSIBLY COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED. Concussion protocol is not overly reactive. It keeps young athletes (and NFL players, NBA players, MLB players, and college athletes) from experiencing the misery Ben, and many others like him, have experienced. It’s time for our high school (and middle school and little league) coaches to be trained about concussions.

And it’s time for parents to realize we sometimes have to step in: In a concussion situation, you can’t trust an athlete who wants to go back in the game, and you sometimes can’t trust a coach who thinks he needs that athlete to play just one more quarter or one more inning. That’s one reason the NFL implemented independent spotters in 2012. These independent trainers can pull a player suspected of suffering a concussion without fear of repercussion from a coach who doesn’t want to lose a key player in a close game.

“It’s worth keeping him in for one more quarter,” they reason. But it’s not. “It’s not that big a deal,” they think. But it is. “I tell everyone that parents have to stand their ground with coaches and use their own common sense when it comes to their child,” said the cheerleader’s mom. “I regret I didn’t know the seriousness of it all.”

Ben is still on the team. He sits through practices and watches the games from the bench.  I still have my quilt and propane heater to watch from the stands, too. And I’m watching without that nervous, don’t-let-him-get-up-to-bat-with-two-outs feeling in my stomach when the game is close, because I know he won’t be coming to the plate.

I’d prefer the nervousness, of course; it’s a little empty knowing he won’t play because of something that possibly could have been prevented. A couple of weeks off, a little more “overreaction,” and maybe Ben’s year of pain and anxiety would never have happened. A concussion, it turns out after all, is a big deal.

Trust me. It really is.

One comment

  • As with a lot of things, value judgments can cloud our reality judgments. We would like to live in a cartoon world where a good shot in the head can be “shaken off.” Baseball’s goofy ethic is, “Don’t rub where that ball hit you.” (Even football players grab knees in pain.) But head trauma is as real as the fact that our brains are eighty per cent water and twenty percent miraculous, gray goo. The wonder of our created being is that we can usually heal, but healing must be allowed and even nurtured.

    Now, I want to say, Ben is my hero.

    A whole lot of boys would not dress out just to sit on the bench. (Man, that is a lonely photo.) A lot of moms would not be at the game, either. But what greater way is there for Ben to show that he is a member of his team? What greater way is there that he knows his mom is behind him?

    Thanks for this, Terri.
    This is wonderful sports writing.

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