To understand why state Representative Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery County, has chosen to introduce legislation aimed at enhancing concussion management in youth sports in Pennsylvania, one only has to hear the sad story of Tracy Yatsko, a former high school basketball player from Tamaqua who appeared at a news conference yesterday hosted by the Eagles to promote House Bill 2060.
Until she suffered a concussion during a game on Jan. 10, 2005, Yatsko had been a fine student and athlete; she said her life had been "pretty much perfect." But that changed when she went up for a rebound and hit heads with another player, which left her feeling as if her "brain was constantly getting smashed by a hammer."
Still dizzy, nauseated, and unable to focus on her schoolwork, she played 2 days later because, as an athlete, "we are taught to suck it up."
"We had a huge game and my team needed me," Yatsko said at Lincoln Financial Field. "Although the gym floor was spinning round and round, I played, and I ended up passing out after the game."
Joining Briggs were Rick Burkholder, Eagles' head athletic trainer; Dr. Drew Nagele, board secretary of the Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania; and John Gonoude, a former high school football player who also sustained a concussion. Yatsko told how her head injury turned her life "upside down." Unable to go back to school for her junior year, she had to rely on teachers to come to her house to help her with her schoolwork. Initially, she said she spent her time "lying on the couch with no TV, no lights, dark sheets covering the window, sunglasses on, and ice packs tightly wrapped around my head." Five years later the effects of her head injury has impeded her ability to attend college, hold down a job and occasionally even get out of bed.
"We need to raise awareness that if an athlete gets a blow to the head, it is not up to a parent, coach or even a trainer to put them back in the game," said Yatsko. "A doctor is qualified to make that decision. It is better to miss one game than the whole season - and in my case, my life."
Endorsed by the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers and Sixers, and both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates (Briggs said the Penguins did not reply to their inquiry), H.B. 2060 is in the same spirit of a bill signed into law last year in Washington State. Covered by H.B. 2060 are interscholastic athletes from grades 7 to 12 at Pennsylvania public, private and parochial schools. Chiefly, it calls for athletes who are suspected of having sustained a concussion or head injury to be removed from a practice or a game, and not be allowed to play again until they receive written clearance from a licensed health professional. Student-athletes, parents and coaches would be apprised of the perils associated with returning to play too quickly after a head injury, and parents or guardians would have to sign a concussion and head information sheet each year before the student could practice or play.
"The mentality of 'shake it off and get back in the game' needs to be replaced with 'concussions are nothing to shake off,' " said Briggs, who quoted a Centers for Disease Control statistic that states there are 3.8 million sports-related concussions nationally each year, and that the state figure could be as high as 156,000. "It is crucial for parents and students to be aware of the risks of sports-related head injury. Equally important is ensuring athletic coaches in every Pennsylvania school are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of brain injury, so that they can work with the appropriate health-care professionals in determining when an athlete should return to play."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last week urged governors across the United States to support legislative efforts such as H.B. 2060, which is expected to come up for vote later this month.
Burkholder explained why it was so essential. "At three different international conferences, experts have determined that young athletes need more time to recover [from concussions] than older professional athletes," said Burkholder. He added that "these injuries are very serious and must be reported immediately."
Nagele echoed that. "The consequences of not addressing this public health issue are foreboding," he said. "Athletes who return to play before their brains heal experience a slower recovery and are at risk for long-term disability with persistent cognitive impairments. Repeated concussions can set an athlete up for Second Impact Syndrome, which is characterized by brain swelling, permanent brain damage and even death."
Gonoude said it was an "essential step" toward protecting student-athletes. An Upper Merion High School senior who suffered a concussion on the football field as a sophomore and who experienced an array of symptoms that left him feeling "helpless," Gonoude added that he hoped that with education concussions "will be treated as a brain injury, rather than a joke . . . that can be ignorantly summarized as a headache." *