In the fall of 2010, Vince Tumbleson ’13.5 suffered a concussion in a football game.
“I took a hit in the first half, got kind of dizzy but didn’t think anything of it because I had never had a concussion before,” Tumbleson said.
Tumbleson continued to play through the second half when he started to realize something was not quite right. He was not remembering plays, and then the next day, during a class presentation, he did not remember anything, he said. After going to Health Services, he was told to recover for two weeks, but ultimately required a total of eight weeks to recooperate. At that point, he had missed so much schoolwork that he decided to take a medical leave of absence for the semester.
Tumbleson’s story — and the consequences he endured — is not unique. About 70 Brown athletes suffered concussions this past year, according to Dr. Edward Wheeler, medical director at Health Services. An additional 15 to 25 individuals also dealt with concussions from participating in non-varsity athletics or due to accidents involving alcohol.
As a student-athlete at the collegiate level, dealing with a concussion becomes a juggling act between the pressures of the sport, academics and, most importantly, the recovery process.
Knowing the risks
A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury usually caused by a blow or jolt to the head. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 3.8 million sports-related concussions are reported yearly in the United States. Even mild bumps to the head can be serious, and athletes who suffer multiple concussions during their careers are at a higher risk for permanent brain damage and even death.
The procedures surrounding concussions have improved over the last few years. Efforts to improve education and protocols like the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, which evaluates verbal memory, visual memory, visual motor speed and reaction time, have been implemented. Athletes at all levels in many sports, particularly contact sports, may be required to undergo testing before the start of the season and again if a head injury is sustained. If the player scores substantially lower, he or she cannot resume play until the baseline score is met again.
Concussions are increasingly gaining national attention — athletes often return to their sport or physical activity too soon after suffering a concussion, which can potentially cause brain damage. Over the last few years, the number of concussions reported has increased as athletes and coaches become better educated about the dangers surrounding the injury.
Hitting close to home
Concussions were not understood nearly as well as they are today when Neal Rooney ’14 suffered a mild concussion playing football for Bruno five years ago. This was his second concussion — he had suffered one in high school — but this time he sustained a serious injury.
“It was pretty mild and I misinterpreted the symptoms,” Rooney said. “I was really overtired … (I) thought maybe I had mono. So I kept playing, which made things worse and compounded the issue.”
His symptoms were not identified as stemming from a concussion until he saw Head Athletic Trainer Russ Fiore, at which point Rooney’s condition had worsened.
“The second semester was the most miserable I have ever been,” Rooney said. Rooney came back for one week of the 2009-10 school year, but was overwhelmed and decided to take a medical leave of absence.
“I saw a doctor in Boston, and then for six months, I couldn’t read, watch TV, use the computer, do anything that increased my heart rate, drive, go to busy places,” Rooney said.
Rooney said his recovery process was long and arduous, and he did not want to come back too soon.
“I think it’s hard for people to understand that concussions can last that long … pushing will set you back,” Rooney said. “Just because you’re back at school doesn’t mean you don’t need support.”
He said he is now “that guy” the trainers now use as an example.
“If I had gotten injured today … I’d be a lot better off,” Rooney said.
Diana Ohrt ’13, a defender on the women’s soccer team, suffered two concussions during her collegiate career. The first was in the fall of 2009 during a home game against Dartmouth. She went to the training room to Health Services to the hospital for a CT scan, and then spent three weeks in recovery.
Ohrt suffered her second concussion — which she said was worse than her first — this past soccer season. After sustaining her first concussion, she sat out the remainder of the game, but the second time she sat out for eight minutes and then went back in to play.
“The protocol is definitely to sit out at least 15-20 minutes in order to evaluate symptoms,” Ohrt said. “And, unfortunately, this was not followed.”
In many cases, there is pressure to get back in the game as soon as possible, she said. Being a senior and a center back among a younger backline of players, “there was a need to get back sooner rather than later,” Ohrt said.
Sumner Becker ’14 experienced a concussion last spring while playing club soccer.
“It was the second concussion I’ve had, though by far the worse of the two,” Becker said. “The first one I got playing hockey my senior year of high school, but it was mild, self-diagnosed, and I only had some mild headaches for two days following.”
This time around he said the impact was so hard he lost vision in his right eye for nearly an hour, followed by all the standard symptoms of a bad concussion — nausea, dizziness and disorientation. He spent the next three weeks recovering.
“I couldn’t look at a computer screen or read without feeling immediately nauseous,” Becker said. “Any excursion outside the building ended up with bad fatigue and more headaches after about 25 minutes.”
Becker’s concussion occurred two days before the start of finals, which meant that he had to “postpone indefinitely” his exams and final papers. It was not until six weeks later that he was cleared by the doctor to resume studying.
Students who have experienced concussions said they found the University makes an enormous effort to accommodate and assist them as they struggle to recover on the field and in the classroom.
For student-athletes who are diagnosed with concussions, the trainers immediately notify the Office of Student Life, said Maria Suarez, associate dean and director of student support services. Suarez said an trainers do an “excellent job” connecting student-athletes who have been concussed with OSL, but she pointed out that this is often a bigger issue for students who are not athletes, due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. But for the most part, the doctors at Health Services are good about referring students, Suarez said.
When student-athletes are diagnosed with a concussion by the trainers, they are first referred to Health Services for evaluation and monitoring. If a non-varsity athlete suffers a concussion, they must seek out treatment from Health Services on their own.
“UHS has an established protocol for evaluating and treating patients with a concussion,” Wheeler said. “They are closely followed by us and the trainers for symptoms until all symptoms are resolved.”
Wheeler said it is during this time that the Student and Employee Accessibility Services and the deans’ offices help students determine how to handle their academic commitments.
“The deans work very hard to allow the concussed students the time they need to rest their brains, which is essential for recovery,” he said.
Suarez said the recovery process can vary in length and works on an individual basis.
“Your gender, if it’s your first, third, fourth concussion, if you have learning disabilities or other issues can exacerbate the situation, so some take much longer,” Suarez said.
“The University helped a lot … the deans were so understanding, the professors were understanding,” Ohrt said. “Being given a reduced course load allowed me to catch up on my work.”
For Becker, as soon as it became clear that he was on indefinite rest, he emailed Deputy Dean of the College Stephen Lassonde, who told him to arrange incompletes with each of his professors individually.
“I think the University handled it really well,” Becker said. “I had no problems arranging the incompletes, and I was able to turn in my papers after I had stopped feeling symptoms. And they let me take my (ECON 1110: “Microeconomics”) exam in the middle of the summer when I was able to come back to Providence.”
Ohrt, Rooney and Tumbleson all said Suarez was exceptionally helpful in dealing with each of their academic situations while they were recovering from their concussions.
“The University was phenomenal … particularly Dean Maria Suarez,” Tumbleson said. “She didn’t care about anything but recovery.”
Rooney also credited SEAS in aiding his recovery and transition back at Brown following his leave of absence.
Athletes, coaches and students are now more educated about concussions. “Ten years ago 15-20 athletes coming forward (with concussions) might have been the norm,” Wheeler said, while now the number is at 70 per semester. “The trainers are excellent at recognizing even the subtle signs of a concussion and are very conscious when athletes are seen in situations where a concussion might have occurred.”
“We have all become quite educated over the past two years, especially about concussions and understanding that there is a fingerprint for each person,” Suarez said, explaining how concussions affect each individual differently.
But there is always room for improvement, and the University is working with other Ivy League schools to better protocols for helping students deal with concussions, Wheeler said.
“I believe the systems are in place to help concussed students, so the issue is awareness of concussions and their symptoms and the need to seek care,” Wheeler said.