By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — When Niskayuna High School senior Ericka Stewart first collided with another soccer player on the field in October 2014, her head snapped backward. Then she fell forward and smacked into the cold dirt.
“I stood up and everything was bright and loud,” she recalls.
Her opponent had come up behind her and shoved during a charged varsity game.
“I had the ball, and they obviously wanted it,” Stewart said.
Though the incident left her with a serious concussion that kept her out of school for a week and away from sports for a month, she has a vivid memory of the moment when it happened — partly because it was televised.
“The worst part is, it was on TV,” said Stewart, who has recovered and developed a sense of humor about the injury.
“They did a slow-mo and the announcers were like, ‘That looks like a concussion,’ ” she said.
Stewart’s concussion was one of only eight suffered during Niskayuna High School sport competition since the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year. Five occurred during football games and one each during wrestling, lacrosse and soccer competition.
Before 2012, there’s no data. July 1 of that year marked the first time New York state required schools to keep a tally.
The New York State Concussion Management and Awareness Act went into effect in July 2012, requiring schools to put a plan in place to treat, prevent and track student head injuries during sporting events.
Niskayuna’s athletic trainer, Chris Shaw of OrthoNY, is typically the one to oversee athletes’ diagnosis and recovery when a concussion is suspected.
He has been with the district for twelve years, but said his job has been more difficult since budget troubles caused his hours to be reduced. Instead of the five days a week year-round he once worked, Shaw now comes to the school three days per week, except for football season, when he insists on being there Monday through Friday.
Shaw said there isn’t much anyone can do to truly prevent a concussion. There are neck exercises and helmets that cost several hundred dollars, but even those have limited effectiveness. He believes a proper mouth guard can help, and insists the students wear them, even when they complain.
But the most important thing is to make sure students can recognize the symptoms of concussion and that they don’t rush their recoveries, because brain injuries become much more dangerous if they happen a second time.
The Niskayuna Central School District Concussion Management Plan emphasizes the fact that prevention becomes much more important after an athlete sustains the first concussion.
“In a small number of cases, or in cases of re-injury during the recovery phase, permanent brain injury is possible,” the plan reads. “Children and adolescents are more susceptible to concussions and take longer than adults to fully recover.”
Seriously damaging brain injuries that happen during the recovery phase are referred to as “second impact syndrome,” which Shaw said is usually the culprit when an athlete dies from a concussion.
“Kids want to play, so they don’t say anything,” he said.
But Shaw’s trained eye can keep them from getting past him and back onto the field too soon.
“I can check their pupils, reaction time; you can’t lie about that,” he said.
He also has a higher-tech tool at his disposal for diagnosing concussions and measuring recovery. Students take a neurocognitive baseline test before the season begins, and a program stores information about their reaction times and other concussion indicators. They retake the test to prove they’re well enough to rejoin their teammates.
Since the Concussion Management and Awareness Act became law in 2012, Shaw said he’s seen more local schools hiring certified athletic trainers like himself to keep an eye on students during games. Creating such a position is recommended, but not required, by the law. He currently has colleagues who serve the Burnt Hills, Schalmont, Schenectady, and Shenendehowa districts, among others.
He said it’s a step in the right direction. He remembers a time, about ten years ago, when the protocol was simply to have kids sit out for a quarter or a half when they “got their bell rung,” as coaches used to say. Now, people like him are often there watching out for their safety.
“You wouldn’t drop your kid off at the pool without a lifeguard,” Shaw said.
Unfortunately for Stewart, carefully waiting for her concussion symptoms to disappear meant ending her high school soccer career.
“My season ended before I was able to recover fully,” she said.
It took a frustrating wait of nearly a month before she could run without a pounding headache developing in her forehead. However, she’s back at competitive sports, now excelling at running. She was the only Niskayuna athlete to make it to the
indoor track and field state championships at Cornell University in early March, and plans to continue her running career in college, though she hasn’t yet decided where she’ll attend.
Though she said her decision not to compete in college soccer is unrelated to her concussion, Stewart hopes other athletes will continue to take injuries seriously when they occur.
“When you actually look at what is happening in your brain, it’s so much more dangerous than people perceive it to be,” she said. “When it happens, you just have to go from there.”