Concussion Safety: More Than Crossing One’s Fingers Required
I’m not a doctor. I’m not a medical professional or expert on concussions. Candidly, the sight of blood makes me nauseous. I’m not qualified to explain anything in medical terms. I leave that up to those that are capable of such explanations. I’m here through tragedy. What I am qualified to tell you is a story of what happens when every single person in a long line of what I call “carekeepers” fail. What happens when the entire system shuts down.
I still remember the day vividly as if it were yesterday. Time doesn’t heal every wound. On the evening of Friday, September 28, 2001, I received a call from my dad that Matt, my 17-year-old nephew, had been admitted to the hospital. My dad’s voice didn’t sound right. His words were, “It isn’t good,” but he didn’t provide any details.
As I was driving to hospital I tried to assure myself that it was a broken bone or something equally painful but fixable. I knew in the back of my mind, however, that it was something more. My dad isn’t easily shaken, and he was shaken. “How bad could it possibly be,” I thought, “Matt never gets sick, is strong, healthy, happy.”
Minutes after arriving at the hospital I learned that Matt had taken his last unassisted breath an hour earlier and that any further bodily functions would be machine- assisted and for the sole purpose of harvesting his organs. My family was shocked, devastated, and in a state of disbelief.
After trotting off gingerly following a few routine plays, Matt collapsed on the trainer’s table. My dad, his grandfather, described how he held Matt’s hand as a tear rolled down his cheek. Efforts to revive Matt on the way to hospital failed. It wasn’t until months later that I learned that Matt had died from what is referred to as “Second Impact Syndrome” or “SIS.” I also came to learn that Matt’s death was preventable. Matt’s death shook the core of my family and sent shock waves through high school football, not only locally in Southern California but also nationally.
From the beginning, which followed the end of Matt’s short life, it was clear to me that concussion protocol, prevention, treatment and education, at every level, was what can only be described as a “mess.” The Internet revealed vastly differing views from respected medical professionals with no real consensus. The state of disarray made it difficult to determine where things went wrong. That’s when I turned to Brooke de Lench at MomsTeam. That was in the fall of 2001, With Brooke’s help, I started to unravel the mystery. What I found was as disconcerting as it was astonishing. All of the carekeepers, those responsible for protecting Matt, had failed.
From the doctor who misread and misdiagnosed Matt’s symptoms, to the athletic trainer who dismissed the warning signs, to the head coach who ignored the doctor’s admonition to avoid any “head hitting,” to Matt’s friends who knew of his severe symptoms but didn’t have the training to know to tell someone, yes, even to Matt’s family. Telling is a quote from Matt’s head coach, Dave Perkins: “Matt really had no symptoms of having a head injury,” Perkins said. “He had slight headaches and he told us about them and he was cleared to play.” I know now, and hopefully Mr. Perkins knows now, that even a “slight headache” is indeed a symptom of having a head injury. The week before Matt’s death I recall inviting him to the movies. He cancelled on me the next day, saying that he had a “really bad headache.” Less than a week later he was gone. “Why,” I asked myself, “had everyone failed Matt so horribly?” Why didn’t I ask him more questions about his headache? Today I would have; back then I had no idea.
I’ve come to learn that it takes education and awareness, from the top of the carekeeper tree to the roots of the tree. Every single person, every branch, has an obligation to pay attention, ask questions, educate and protect our children. It’s been 15 years since Matt died. Education, awareness, identification, prevention, and treatment of head injuries, specifically concussions, has improved, there is no doubt. The question is has it improved enough? Sadly, I don’t think so.
On September 24, 2015, an article appeared in a local newspaper, The Daily Pilot, about Sutty Barbato, a standout high school football player from Corona Del Mar High School, in Newport Beach, California, a very affluent area of Southern California, mere miles from where Matt went to high school. Due to what were described as “multiple concussions [Sutty] suffered during his sophomore and junior years”, Sutty spent most of his junior year in the press box. The CDM coach who sat next to Sutty that year was Dan O’Shea, the then defensive coordinator. Coach O’Shea became the head coach Sutty’s senior year. Even Coach O’Shea said that during Sutty’s junior year, he didn’t want Sutty to play another down, as he was “concerned with [Sutty’s] future.”
Incredibly, Coach O’Shea said that in the off-season before Sutty’s senior year it was a “coin flip” as to whether Sutty would play his senior year. He said that he had a “lot of conversations with the parents, who love [Sutty] to death and who are obviously most interested in his health,” and “we were encouraging Sutty not to play.” Ultimately, Coach O’Shea said that it was “our position, along with the parents, was that it needs to be Sutty’s decision. As a young man, he’s very mature, he’s very conscious of his brain, and the need to be in complete health for the rest of his life.” Mr. O’Shea then went on to detail certain “precautions” he would take to prevent further concussions, such as no contact during practice and use of a skull cap and Guardian Cap (worn in the NFL). “So far,” said Coach O’Shea, “we’ve been OK. We cross our fingers every game that he comes out healthy.” The article went on to laud CDM’s successes, number two ranking in the CIF Southern Section Southwest Division Poll and Sutty’s outstanding, game-changing play.
The article acknowledged that Sutty said he doesn’t really think about the possibility of suffering another concussion. Coach O’Shea said he thinks about that every day. The article ends with “I love this kid as a son.” Coach O’Shea said. “I admire him as much as any young man I’ve coached. When you love and care about someone, you want to make sure they remain healthy.”
Fourteen years after Matt’s death, Sutty’s fate is left to a “coin flip.” Fourteen years after Matt essentially decided for himself, without the benefit of what we know today about concussions, to continue to play a game that ultimately killed him, Coach O’Shea and Sutty’s parents leave it up to Sutty to make the decision to play because, according to Coach O’Shea, Sutty is “very conscious of his brain.” Sutty’s health, and his life, are left to fate and Coach O’Shea’s “crossed fingers.” You are right Coach O’Shea, when you love and care for someone, you do everything in your power to make sure they remain healthy. In Sutty’s case that should have meant never letting him strap on a helmet again.
Matt did not know best. Sutty did not know best. No one should leave the fate of their child to a flip of a coin or crossed fingers. Things have changed and for the better. But they haven’t changed enough. Only through the efforts of organizations such as MomsTeam Institute and programs like its SmartTeams™ #TeamUp4ConcussionSafety will we prevent another tragedy like Matt’s. It’s about changing attitudes, perceptions and promoting action. The decision to risk a child’s long term health and possibly death, should never be left to a child.