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High School Football Concussions part of 'Peace of Mind

POSTED July 09, 2014
BY Timothy W. Gaffney
Twitter: @TimothyGaffney


It seems hard to believe in this idyllic month of July, that in a few weeks our athletic fields at Torrington High School, Lewis Mills, Housatonic and elsewhere, will be crowded with athletes preparing for another fall season. With this preparation comes the fear of injury, especially concussions. 

As the LA Times reported in a recent story, there is no way of determining the "amount of head trauma" that occurs on our high school grid-irons, because of sporadic reporting on such injuries. However, former New Orleans Saints executive Terry O'Neil estimated that more than 100,000 concussions have been reported in states that keep such records. It is why O'Neil and others insist that helmets should be warn in practice.

Another study noted that in 2009, some 250,000 head injuries for athletes under the age of 19 - in all sports - were reported in our emergency rooms. That was up from 150,000 in 2001.

Connecticut is one of the few states that has a concussion law, mandating concussion education for high school coaches. It also addresses other areas related to concussions.

Enter Dr. Kara Gagnon, who for 18 years was a Department of Veterans Affairs physician. During that time, she witnessed too many traumatic brain injuries among our veterans. That was when she decided to do something. Now she is about to embark on an endeavor that will extend from the military to our high school athletic fields, right here in Connecticut.

Dr. Gagnon is the founder, CEO and President of the non-profit "Peace of Mind" Brain Injury Services.  Her goal is to open a wellness center in Old Saybrook by August. The plan is to treat veterans, high school athletes and others, who suffer traumatic brain injury.

What happens when a high school athlete, or anyone for that matter, suffers a concussion? The brain is shaken, causing numerous problems, especially with vision, Dr. Gagnon told me in a recent interview.

"There are a million nerves that leave the back of the eyeball, that travel through the brain and go to the base of your skull. The visual system travels through almost 80 percent of your brain." Dr. Gagnon said.  "It (the brain) is very, very vulnerable. When the brain is jostled, just the force of being thrown - not even having to hit your head - the brain hits against the skull, when a person is thrown."

Dr. Gagnon said patients face numerous problems in the aftermath of such injuries, including not getting a correct diagnosis until "much down the road."

A U.S. Marine injured in Iraq helped inspire Dr. Gagnon to start the center. 

"I had a Marine who was 27 years old. He came back and said to me 'I wanted to be a teacher, but I am not the same person who left this country. Maybe I can volunteer in a classroom.' My opinion is, I am not okay with that," Dr. Gagnon said.

"I want to get that Marine to teach, because he was so passionate about that."

Dr. Gagnon is excited about emerging technology that will get that Marine and others, suffering from brain injuries to reach their goals. To that end, she is working with Apple on applications for the computer, that will help the brain injured to learn without getting tired, something that happens "very easily" to people suffering from such trauma. These programs will allow brain injured victims to keep up with the course load in school.

Dr. Gagnon is urging people to visit braveminds.org to learn the latest about when the center will open. 

Meanwhile, we have a responsibility to insure the safety of our high school athletes. Dismissing a concussion, as part of the risk of playing sports is not the answer. As Dr. Gagnon, said, brain injuries can lead to double vision, headaches, comprehension problems and more.

"My goal is to establish screening tools and standards of care," Dr. Gagnon said. Our goal should be to support Dr. Gagnon's endeavor, while making sports as safe as possible.

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