By Katy Savage, Standard Staff
This past year, the Woodstock Union High School girls basketball team didn’t go the state tournament. Not because they weren’t good enough, but because they didn’t have enough players.
Schuyler Benoit and Amber Barcomb, two junior captains, collided with an opposing team’s player while going for a ball during the last home game against Mount Saint Joseph Academy. Benoit got hit in the head by an elbow to the nose and Barcomb got hit in the cheekbone. Both had to sit out for at least two weeks with a concussion.
The injuries impacted the entire team, which had nine players on the roster.
“I lost probably eight (players) over the course of the year with concussions,” said coach Roger St. Hilaire.
Due to a new concussion management protocol, injured Woodstock students are prohibited from returning to play without passing through a sevenstep process: First, the athletic trainer evaluates students who hit their head. They ride a bike and then if they have no symptoms, jog, and if they have no symptoms, return to practice with no contact, then return to practice with full contact. Students must be symptom-free for 24 hours before they return to graduated play. They take a post-concussion impact test on a computer and are cleared by the athletic trainer.
Concussion Law Has ‘No Teeth’
The protocol was prompted by a new state law that requires a trained health care provider to be at any collision sporting event, defined as football, hockey, lacrosse and wrestling. It also requires schools to report concussions so the Traumatic Brain Injury Advisory Board can create a report.
But the law has “no teeth whatsoever,” said Barb Winters, an outreach coordinator from the Brain Injury Association of Vermont.
Although the Brain Injury Association of Vermont is supportive of the idea of the law, there hasn’t been any statewide data collection mechanism tor enforcement. The state keeps no records of concussions at high schools.
“There really isn’t any format,” Winters said.
A concussion task force, comprised of members from the Vermont Principal’s Association examined the law last year, looking at the financial impact to schools and the selection of concussion-prone sports.
“I think there are many questions about the concussion law and how we approach concussions that are still left up in the air,” said Bob Johnson associate executive director of the Vermont Principal’s Association.
“I just remember that I couldn’t focus on stuff. My headache lasted for three days and I was really sensitive to light.”
“Us old-timers talk about it a lot. Back then, if you saw stars, you shook it off and when you stopped seeing stars you went right back out there.”
The number of recreation-related traumatic brain injuries increased 62 percent from 153,375 per year to 248,418 per year for people 19 and younger from 2001 to 2009, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show. TBIs were most common in football for males 10-19 and most common for females 10-19 who were playing soccer and bicycling. But because Vermont has just 32 football teams and 138 soccer teams, Vermont sees more concussions in soccer, Johnson estimated.
The task force recommended naming additional sports, such as soccer, field hockey and basketball, collision sports.
“This past legislative season, nothing was done on that report,” Johnson said.
Times Have Changed
There were 29 concussions reported to the school nurse at WUHS last year, most of them were sports-related, Principal Greg Schillinger said at a June School Board meeting, but the number also includes concussions from athletes and non-athletes.
Woodstock’s protocol has been in place for about two years. Athletic Director Jeff Thomas said the school wanted to be proactive and developed the protocol in anticipation of the law.
Players are generally out of practice 5-6 days at minimum, but sometimes they sit out for months, which is dramatically different from how it was before.
“If you were coaching four years ago and if a kid was concussed during a game, you might sit them out for a game and then they return to practice,” said Thomas.
But it can affect the game.
“It has an impact on the game and what you can do because you’re limited to the players that you can play,” St. Hilaire said. “If you lose a couple of your starters in a concussion situation, it changes the complexity of the team quite a bit.”
‘Like A Constant Headache’
For athletes, symptoms can include blurry vision, headache, confusion and memory problems.
Loretta Blakeney, who will be a sophomore next school year at WUHS, couldn’t play for a month after she got hit in the head with a basketball during physical education class just before the varsity basketball team’s first game. She was out of school for two weeks.
“I missed quite a few games,” Blakeney said.
Blakeney wore sunglasses because she was sensitive to light.
“It was just like a constant headache,” she said.
Per protocol, middle school students playing boys lacrosse and football and all ninth and 11th grade student athletes at WUHS are required to take computer-based cognitive tests that measure reaction and time.
Each coach must take an online concussion-training course to recognize the signs of a concussion.
Concussions affect each student differently.
Benoit returned to play after she collided with her teammate, but she wasn’t able to play at the end of the season because of a worsening headache.
“I just remember that I couldn’t focus on stuff,” she said. “My headache lasted for three days and I was really sensitive to light.”
The new protocol has made the issue more prevalent to coaches.
“Us old-timers talk about it a lot,” said varsity soccer coach Tom Avellino who played ball in the 1970s. “Back then, if you saw stars, you shook it off and when you stopped seeing stars you went right back out there. Now you’re more educated about it because there’s so much attention drawn to it.”