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The Salt Lake valley high school volleyball coach wanted to challenge his teenage players so he brought in adults to join the coaches and form an opposing team for an afterschool scrimmage. Sixteen-year-old Blaire went up to block a ball at the net, only to get “a very forceful direct hit from the other team,” says her mother, Gwyneth, directly to her forehead.
It stopped Blaire in her tracks and she froze on the court in a daze. She drove home and told her parents what happened. They watched her through the evening and by the next day she didn’t look well.
“She was very glassy-eyed and disorientated,” Gwyneth recalls. They took her to Primary Children’s where she was diagnosed with a concussion. Primary suggested they go to the University of Utah’s concussion clinic. Forty-eight hours later, they saw Dr. Christopher A. Gee M.D., a specialist in concussions and sports medicine at the Orthopedic Center.
When it comes to kids and orthopedic sporting injuries, it’s a rite of passage for teenage athletes to sprain, fracture or break limbs in the quest for sporting excellence and victory. They twist or sprain ankles, puts demands on joint and growth plates in young bones by specializing in the same sport all year round that can result in painful stress on joints.
“Most rest and it passes and those who try to push through it will eventually be brought up short by the pain,” Gee says.
Concussions like Blaire’s injury are another common orthopedic issue, Gee says. “It can happen from the head being impacted against something or getting whiplashed. The brain gets jostled inside the skull. It usually doesn’t cause longterm damage, but can cause symptoms for several weeks.”
Gee sees concussions from football, rugby, lacrosse and volleyball, along with falls from winter sports like snowboarding and skiing.
“Having them wear helmets helps but doesn’t prevent them,” he says. “The big thing for concussion education is getting coaches, parents and players to recognize the symptoms: athletes complaining of headaches, nausea, vision problems.”
For the most part, he says, the pressures for players to get back into the game has receded before the push to educate all those involved. “We get a lot more support now from school staff,” he says.
When Blaire came to see him, Gee performed a battery of tests including neurological testing before confirming the concussion and instructing her to avoid further impact and stress, which in itself hinders healing. Blaire needed to rest the brain so it could heal, he told her, which meant informing the school she may need accommodations for homework and tests. She also needed to stop working out for a while and stay away from bright lights and screens.
Reducing the volume and pressures of school work brought stress for Blaire, who’s a high-performing student with an extensive extra-curricular life, including playing the cello and guitar, surfing, rowing, reading and studying Latin.
As a 4.0 GPA student who loves learning, “it proved stressful for her to know she was getting behind every day because she needed to rest her brain to heal,” Gwyneth says. Equally as an athlete, not moving her body was also hard. An even-keeled young woman, she suddenly found herself struggling with mood swings as her brain recovered from the blow.
Gwyneth stresses the importance of reaching out for an assessment after any blow. “Early intervention is important. It’s better to know for sure and get the care you need in advance to not cause further injury.” Compared to the weeks-long recovery Blaire went through if an athlete were to receive a second concussion before her brain had healed from the first, that recovery period could be six months.
Out of all these traumatic events that beset Blaire and her family, there also arose something singularly constructive. They stepped back and looked at the stress she was normally under during the academic year and decided that perhaps this was an opportunity for her to consider what she wanted to put back into her life as she recovered.
Gwyneth is a psychotherapist who originally hails from California and by curious coincidence found herself receiving, at the same time as her daughter mulled over her future, several professional opportunities in the Golden State. As Blaire assessed what she wanted her life to look like, she decided to switch schools to California, where she’d start anew after Thanksgiving.
Without the concussion, Gwyneth says, the family wouldn’t have stopped to question what they wanted. “One hundred percent everything has shifted and for Blaire definitely it’s a very courageous journey,” she says.