Recently, a study showed that most high school athletes would do whatever it takes to get back on the field after a concussion, no matter what doctors say. Most shockingly, the majority of those with that stance also showed a fairly good knowledge of the dangers of concussions.
We will know if Rowan Stringer thought that way. What we do know is that Stringer, a 17-year old Rugby team captain at John McCrae Secondary School, is now dead after suffering brain trauma last Wednesday. Her family has publicly said that Stringer complained of headaches in the lead up to that fateful game, starting after two previous hits to the head. The questions linger. Why was she allowed to play? Did she have a pre-existing brain injury? Would Rowan be alive if she had been tested for a concussion and withdrawn from play?
Jeannette Holman-Price, head of the Brain Injury Association in Canada is left asking exactly those questions. “Was this her first brain injury? That was my first thought,” Holman-Price told the Ottawa Citizen. “My next thought was ‘education, education education’ — that’s where we’re going to make a difference.”
Holman-Price is right when she says there is a misunderstanding about concussion in the public discussion, and it is slowly taking more and more lives. When the teenagers in the study earlier this year tested highly for concussion knowledge, they showed awareness of many of the long-term risks of concussion such as depression and anxiety and possibly cognitive defects, but one side-effect tends to go undisclosed at that level. While repeat brain injuries increase the risk of permanent side-effects, two brain injuries in close succession can simply kill.
Long term side-effects don’t make enough of an impact on young teenagers who also see the positive results of a sport and ignore the safety risks. Just as many teenagers ignore the long term health risks of smoking, many teens also ignore the long-term health risks of sports in exchange for their shot at greatness.
There is obviously no reason these kids shouldn’t have that shot, either. An active teenager engaged in sports is likely to be more healthy physically and socially than those who don’t find group physical activities to engage in, but their safety is the number one concern when they join sports like rugby or football with notoriously high levels of injury. And if the kids aren’t willing to sit themselves out when the time comes, it is our job to step up and remove them from play at the very first sign of brain injury. If anyone would have stopped Rowan when she complained of headaches before stepping on the field on Wednesday, she’d probably still be with us.