Lake Forest resident Lisa Maris understands how active boys can be. They like to play, and sometimes they get bumps and bruises.
Two winters ago, her son Peter fell avoiding an accident while snowboarding. Last spring, he fell again during an indoor baseball workout. The incidents would be typical teenage rough stuff with this exception: both times Peter fell on his head. And both times he was diagnosed with a concussion.
“What’s scary is the more concussions, the worse it gets,” said Maris. “It’s a compounding effect.”
Peter is now 14. Last Friday, he and dozens of other Lake Forest High School freshmen football players sat in a classroom for an unusual test designed to prevent the compounding effect of concussions Maris has experienced already.
Sitting at a computer, the athletes were asked numerous questions from a software program, ImPACT, designed to quantify the brain’s cognitive performance. The test takes between 20 and 30 minutes to administer, with questions ranging from clicking on numbers in descending order from 25 to 1 to recalling spatial designs. Once the athletes go through the test, Lake Forest athletic trainer Jeff Dooley and his training staff have a flashpoint on how an individual’s memory and reaction time works, called a “baseline.”
If an athlete does suffer a concussion, Dooley then puts them through the test a second time. He can compare data from the second test with the baseline to better determine the speed with which the student is recovering.
“The vast majority of concussions heal on their own if you let them,” said Dooley, who has been at Lake Forest High School for more than two decades. “There is no treatment to make a concussion heal faster, but there’s a lot of things we can do to make them heal slower.”
Recent media coverage on the issue of concussions has brought more attention to the topic. Earlier this year, Dave Duerson, a member of the 1985 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears, committed suicide. He donated his brain to a study, and the resulting examination revealed damage to the brain before his suicide.
Dooley acknowledged the heightened awareness has sped up the process of schools like Lake Forest integrating concussion prevention, but “all the talk is nothing new. We’ve been talking about it for 20 years. Now, we can put in some protocol we’ve always wanted to do.”
That protocol is not preventing concussions altogether, but avoiding what he calls “second impact.” These are concussions that occur shortly after the first one. They are also the most dangerous.
“That (second impact) is when you get that second blow, the brain is vulnerable and can cause much more severe damage,” said Dooley.
This is the second year the high school is offering the testing for all sports, classified in “tiers” based on risk of head injuries. It is the first time entering freshmen athletes have been exposed to the test.
Standing outside the high school steps after taking the test, 14-year-old Tony Kennedy and friend, 14-year-old IV Banks, described the test as part video game, part Rubik’s Cube.
“It was a mental thing. It took some (thinking),” said Banks. “It’s about speed and memory.”
Added Kennedy: “It was really weird. You had to memorize lines, shapes and stuff. It was like playing pong.”
Bill Teskowski is a 1977 graduate of Lake Forest High School. He remembers how little was known on the issue when he played. In four weeks, his son, Will, will put on shoulder pads and a helmet for the Scouts freshmen football team. He understands the risks, knowing football is a physical game. He is also grateful for the climate surrounding concussions today, which supports early diagnosis and prevention.
“There’s no question some concussions were not identified (when he played),” said Teskowski. “I think it’s positive as it provides a necessary system for the kids to stay in good condition.”
Waiting for her son to come outside, Maris remembers how Peter felt after his baseball injury, his second concussion, “light-headed, dizzy. He wasn’t himself. it was like he hadn’t had his morning coffee.”
But she also knows Peter wants to play football and since those symptoms a year and a half ago, he’s been OK. She supports the testing, understanding it’s a fine line between protecting your child from harm and letting them find their way.
Said Maris: “Maybe it’s more than we need to do, but if we have it available to us, why not?”
For more information on concussion testing at Lake Forest High School, click here.