CONCUSSIONS IN SPORT
GAME OVER CONCUSSIONS HAVE LONG BEEN SEEN AS PART OF THE GAME IN CONTACT SPORTS LIKE HOCKEY AND FOOTBALL. BUT AS MORE EVIDENCE REVEALS CAREER-ENDING AND LIFE-ALTERING EFFECTS OF GETTING YOUR BELL RUNG, THE CONVERSATION AROUND HITS TO THE HEAD IS CHANGING BY SARAH RICHARDS During 14 years of playing hockey, Scottie Douglas experienced two concussions. But it was a crowning hit one October evening that decisively ended his career in the North American Hockey League. Years of breathing in hockey like an addiction ceased in 2012, heralded by a simple sentence near the end of a game report on the Wichita Falls Wildcats website: Scott Douglas’s season is over due to the concussion he suffered on October 26 in Kenai River. Douglas was hit from behind, roughly three feet from the boards while playing against the NAHL Brown Bears in Alaska. “All I remember is being mid-air thinking, I gotta duck my head,” says the 19-year-old Winnipegger. There wasn’t much time for that. He landed headfirst into the boards and lay unconscious on the ice for several minutes. At the hospital, he was diagnosed with a concussion and prescribed Oxycontin for neck pain. The Wildcats lost 9-3. Meanwhile, the story of Douglas’s concussion was far from over; it drifted on for months. “I didn’t know that depression and insomnia would become factors,” says Douglas. “My sleeping patterns turned from going to bed at 10 p.m. and waking at 6 a.m., to after the concussion staying awake till 4 a.m., and sleeping till 4 p.m. I’d sleep all day.” Unable to play, Douglas moved back to Winnipeg. He tried working a construction job that January, but after one shift, woke up vomiting in the middle of the night. His mother, Christine Cockerill, says the experience affected everyone in the house. “Having an adult who is unemployable and not going to school is a stressor on the family,” says Cockerill. “You think of them every single moment.”
Finally, Douglas was able to hook up with Jeff Leiter [BPE/98, MSc/01, PhD/09], a scientist interested in concussions at the Pan Am Clinic Foundation. Today, Douglas has recovered but has been cautioned against playing competitive hockey again. One more concussion could cause him serious cognitive problems, doctors have told him. “If anything, it’s just so frustrating,” he says. “Kind of like, why did it have to happen to me type of thing?” For years, we’ve turned a blind eye to the health implications of sports like mixed martial arts and boxing. With such obvious violent contact, it has been easy to argue these athletes know and accept the fact that they court brain damage each time they compete. In the past decade, however, many of the sports we assumed were safe for our heads have begun to reveal otherwise. Hardly a week goes by without word of a pro athlete being out with a concussion capturing news headlines. The sports involved run the gamut, from football to soccer to wrestling. The Sydney Crosbys make the biggest news, as do the darker stories about retired players whose lives end abruptly, either through suicide or some other tragedy. Take the trio of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard and NFL legends Junior Seau and Mike Webster—were the dysfunctional lives of these former stars caused by their inability to adjust to everyday life? How did their brain damage caused by repeated head trauma contribute to their deaths? And in light of all of this, should we be letting our kids play these sports? For Leiter, who’s an assistant professor in the University of Manitoba’s departments of Surgery, Human Anatomy and Cell Science and the executive director of the Pan Am Clinic Foundation, the questions keep coming.
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