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Athletes Cope With Concussions: Ignoring the Symptoms Can Prove Detrimental to Long-term Recovery

Senior Jeff Van Dyke, who sustained a concussion while playing basketball, completes a daily symptom questionaire. When his symptoms all return to 0 (indicating no pain) then he can be cleared to play. Once he does resume playing, he will continue to fill out the questionaire until trainer Sam Villa determines that he is healed. All athletes that sustain a concussion must follow the same protocol.

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You catch your breath. Your eyesight is a little blurry as you try to piece the world back together. You know you got hit hard and your head throbs. You don’t remember how you got knocked in the head. As your teammates surround you, you start to wonder: Did I get a concussion or am I just being a wimp?

Senior Jordan Robbins knows what it’s like to wrestle with these questions.

Robbins transferred to La Costa Canyon last year as a junior from Francis Parker High School. She played for the varsity volleyball team and was enrolled in several AP classes. Even though she doesn’t wear crutches or bear visible scars, Robbins is coping with a life-changing injury.

In April of 2011, during just another match of her club season, Robbins dove for a volleyball and hit her head on the floor. The contact of her head hitting the floor began the unpredictable life that she now lives. Robbins had sustained a concussion.

As the headache, nausea and dizziness took over her body, she was forced to sit out, but ten days later, like many athletes Robbins lied about her symptoms and continued play.

“It’s so easy to lie about head injuries,” Robbins said. “I was the only setter on the team. If I sat out there would be no one to take my position. I felt like I had to play.”

Then, Robbins was hit in the head with a ball during practice, not an uncommon occurrence in volleyball, leading to her second concussion.

“It was because my symptoms hadn’t healed,” Robbins said. Her symptoms of headache, dizziness and nausea worsened but again she lied to her coaches and parents.

“I had a big tournament that weekend and I couldn’t miss any more games,” Robbins said.

During that tournament came the final blow. Robbins collided with another player and lost consciousness. This time, Robbins couldn’t lie her way back onto the court. She was pulled out of school and put on complete cognitive rest: no school, no volleyball, no life.

“I just sat in a dark room, no phone, no TV, no computer,” Robbins said.

When June arrived, Robbins was ready to play. With much hesitation from her parents and coaches, Robbins returned back to life and to volleyball. This time, however, she was forced to wear a black and red helmet during practice and games.

Although Robbins is a very unique and serious case, concussions can cause serious harm to anyone if the proper precautions are not taken.

During this past fall season there have been 30 reported concussions to the La Costa Canyon athletic department, most of them coming from the freshman football team.

“They don’t have the neck strength yet to support them when they get hit hard and they are all trying to prove themselves because it’s their freshman year so they go at it hard,” athletic trainer Sam Villa said.

Villa acknowledges that there have been a higher number of concussions than in the past, but notices that athletes are more cautious now about staying safe.

“Kids have a higher awareness of the risks of having a concussion and are more willing to report it,” Villa said.

In the training office lies a thick binder stuffed with current concussion patients files. Once someone has been diagnosed with a concussion, Villa will hand them the concussion packet. It must have a doctor’s signature verifying to Villa that the patient has been professionally seen. It is only then when athletes can begin the “returning” process. The degree of the concussion will determine how long that process will take.

One of athletes listed in the concussion binder is freshman football player Michael Rice. He was able to recover in time to play in the last game of the season.

“I was going up the middle and I got laid out by the middle linebacker,” Rice said. “I blacked out, felt dizzy, and had a headache for a week.”

However, not all concussions are from football. Megan Nolte, a sophomore on the varsity field hockey team, suffered a concussion this past season.

“During one of our games I was trying to guard the ball and I smacked heads with another girl,” Nolte said. “I lost my breath, felt dizzy, and was called off the field. My symptoms were really mild but Sam told me to keep an eye on them because they could get worse. I woke up the next morning and my headache was a lot worse.”

Nolte took the precautions Villa told her to and refrained from playing, but felt resistance from her parents.

“My mom was surprised at the diagnosis,” Nolte said. “She didn’t want me to miss anything, and as a family we didn’t know how to go about it.”

Reluctance from parents to keep athletes from returning to the playing field is not uncommon.

“It’s not because parents don’t have the child’s best interest at heart,” Villa said. “They just don’t have the information,” Villa said.

It is often the case for the parent to make the push for continual play rather than the coach or player themselves, but Rice’s parents took a different perspective.

“My parents were upset when I got my concussion because I got hurt,” Rice said. “They didn’t want me to play football in the first place and they were very concerned. My parents were super strict with me coming back [to play].”

People often forget that concussions not only affect athletics but academics as well. If symptoms distract school performance, then time must be taken off in order for the symptoms to subside.

After missing the last two months of school at Francis Parker, Robbins returned to the classroom at LCC.

Despite her best efforts Robbins went from being a straight A student, to getting Ds and Fs.

“I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” Robbins said. “I wasn’t remembering anything. My parents even studied with me to make sure it wasn’t me just not trying.”

She met with a neurologist and visited the Scripps brain injury center for weekly cognitive therapy. She had been diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome (PCS), which resulted in short-term memory loss. She also had second impact syndrome (SIS), an extremely rare traumatic injury which occurs when an athlete sustains a second blow to the head when symptomatic from the first. The second hit does not have to be severe to cause damage.

Robbins was placed on a 504 plan for her schoolwork. The 504 is for students who have certain medical or other circumstances that significantly affect learning. It assists students by giving them accommodations like more time to take tests or to turn in homework.

But for Robbins, even a 504 can’t change what’s happened.

“I will always be the way I am now,” Robbins said. “It’s sad to know that this happened by playing volleyball,” Robbins said.

Looking back, Robbins thinks about how her life would be different had she not pushed herself into playing injured.

“I risked my life for that one game,” Robbins said. “I would sit out five years of volleyball to save what happened. No match is worth it.”

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Athletes Cope With Concussions: Ignoring the Symptoms Can Prove Detrimental to Long-term Recovery