2011-11-10 / News

Concussion sidelines island athlete for season

BY MARGO SULLIVAN


Drew MacIntyre, middle, hangs out at practice with teammates and fellow Jamestowners Alex Young, left, and Jacob Morris. Drew, 16, is a junior at NKHS and was sidelined for the season with a concussion. 
PHOTO BY MARGO SULLIVAN Drew MacIntyre, middle, hangs out at practice with teammates and fellow Jamestowners Alex Young, left, and Jacob Morris. Drew, 16, is a junior at NKHS and was sidelined for the season with a concussion. PHOTO BY MARGO SULLIVAN Drew MacIntyre, 16, has a decision to make when the football season starts next fall, and he hopes the one he makes will sit right with both his heart and his head.

When the North Kingstown High School junior was sidelined with a concussion earlier this year, his doctors decided he should stay out for the rest of the season. It’s been tough, but Drew has cooperated.

What happens next year is still up in the air, though, Drew said.

“I think I should be ready,” he said, given he will have taken a year off to recuperate.

He wants to be ready. The alternative is quit football, give up the game he loves and miss senior year on the gridiron, homecoming day, and all the traditions he relishes.

But he admits he’s a little nervous about playing football again if he could be chancing brain damage.

“I know about the risks and the consequences,” he said. “I just want to play so bad.”

After several high-profile cases involving professional athletes and head injuries made headlines – and suggested seemingly minor but repeated blows can lead to early onset Alzheimer’s and other serious conditions – coaches, parents and players have paid close attention to head injuries, according to Dr. Michael Bradley of South County Orthopedics in Wakefield.

He expected a handful this year when the R.I. Concussion Consortium Management Group began operations; so far, with just the fall sports season winding down, he’s seen 18 to 20 high school athletes, just in southern Rhode Island, with head injuries.

Monica Tavares, a traumatic brain injuries expert at the state Department of Health, said the state Department of Health, the Department of Education and the R.I. Interscholastic League have been given a charge to educate players, the parents and the coaches about the danger of concussions.

“People are more aware and they’re talking about it more,” she said. Rhode Island maintains a Traumatic Brain Injury Registry, she said. According to the data, in 2010, there were 246 cases of sports-related head injuries to children between 13 and 18, said Annemarie Beardsworth, the public information officer at the state health department.

A new state law has also led to increased reporting about head injuries. According to Thomas Mezzanotte, executive director of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League, student athletes need a medical exam and a physician’s signature before they can “return to play” after a head injury per a new law that took effect in 2010.

No one’s fooling around with concussions, he said.

“They’re absolutely a major concern with respect to any athletic program,” Mezzanotte said. With this new law, coaches are also required to take a refresher course about concussions at the beginning of every season.

The coaches, he said, also know they or the team trainer bears personal responsibility for following proper protocol when a youngster’s hit in the head.

The coaches and trainers also realize a concussion is not like other types of injuries.

With an ankle, for example, “you notice it immediately,” Mezzanotte said, but a concussion is hard to recognize.

Mezzanotte said the league’s new motto is, “When in doubt, sit them out.”

Concussions are even hard for physicians to diagnose, according to Elizabeth Connallon of the Brain Injury Association of Rhode Island, because the hairline skull fractures typically do not show up on CAT scans (Computer Axial Tomography) or MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). But many Rhode Island schools now test student athletes before they’re injured to establish a medical baseline and help doctor’s assess the damage and risks after they’ve been reported with a head injury.

North Kingstown High in 2010- 11 tested all 399 students in its fall, winter and spring programs and was one of few schools statewide to do so, Connallon said. Results are valid for two years. This year, North Kingstown High tested another 72, “either freshmen or upperclassmen new to teams,” she said.

The students were given IMpact tests, so named after the company that developed the concussion management system, Connallon said.

Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs, an emergency room pediatrician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, developed the pilot program for the schools last fall, Connallon said. With the passage of the new state law, many additional schools have now joined her R.I. Concussion Consortium Management Group.

Bradley and Dr. Steve Froberg, physicians with South County Orthopedics and both former NKHS athletes, examined Drew and concluded he should not play any contact sports until next year, Drew said.

He’s still on the football team, he said. Drew was a wide receiver on offense and a defensive cornerback. Now, he’s a “handyman.”

Coach John Horsman uses Drew to keep track of plays during the Skippers’ games and assess which ones are working and which ones, if any, their opponent seems to favor. That information helps the team, but it’s still been hard to see the players run on the field and know he’s not going into the game with them.

Drew does remember the two injuries that put him out for the season. The first one was a helmetto helmet hit, and the collision left him sprawled on the field with a concussion.

He wasn’t knocked out, he said, but he was hurt.

“I wasn’t responsive,” he said. He went by ambulance to Hasbro Children’s Hospital’s emergency room where he stayed several hours.

That mishap happened during a practice scrimmage. Drew was going in for a tackle, and his man had broken a couple of tackles but still wasn’t down. Drew dove in at an angle and accidentally bashed helmets.

“I wasn’t really thinking,” he said. “You’re not supposed to dip your head down; that’s something they teach here.” But he forgot the proper tackle form, he said.

The second time, he was standing in the locker room when a teammate accidentally elbowed him in the temple. He passed out and landed in the ER again.

“I had just come back,” he said. ”I’d been practicing full on,” he added, meaning he had been on the field tackling and hitting, as usual. But this injury scared him because the concussions seemingly happened so easily. Later, doctors told him the second episode probably was a continuation of the first concussion.

“It makes me nervous,” he said, and added the stories about head injury long-term consequences are “scary.”

Drew, son of Andy and Colleen MacIntyre, said he may go out for track while he’s waiting for the doctors to clear him for football. He fell in love with football freshman year when he had his first chance to play.

“I’ve sort of grown up with it,” he said. He added that Tom Brady, the quarterback of the New England Patriots, and Troy Brown, the former Pats’ wide receiver, are his favorite players.

He hopes to pursue a career in sports marketing, he said, and he also likes writing.

He writes “reflective essays” for English class about his sports experiences, he said.

“I wrote about how one time for an all-star baseball team I had to play catcher,” he said. He had to fill in for an injured player. He hadn’t played that position in three years, and when the opponent stole second base and tested his arm, Drew didn’t think he could make the throw.

His old form didn’t desert him, though.

“It came back,” he said. He tossed the runner out.

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