Columns

Corvese ’15: Big hits, bigger consequences

By
Opinions Editor

On Sunday, the body of missing Ohio State University football player Kosta Karageorge was found in a dumpster. Officials believe the cause of death is suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot. Shortly before his disappearance a few days prior, he texted his mother, “I am sorry if I am an embarrassment but these concussions have my head all f***ed up.” According to his sister, he experienced multiple concussions over the course of his life.

As officials investigate his death, it will be some time before we know what precisely in his brain could have caused this — that is, if we can be certain at all. But it would be wholly ignorant to pretend that his death is an isolated incident. Since 2002, a disturbing number of NFL players who had concussions have killed themselves at young ages, including Mike Webster at the age of 50, Terry Long at 45 and Junior Seau at 43. Concussions are more than injuries that take a week of rest to resolve — they’re a national public health problem.

When the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain fails to protect it from a severe impact to the head, one can experience a concussion — a form of traumatic brain injury, or TBI. After all, our brains weren’t designed to be violently rocked that way. Initial concussion symptoms often include headache and loss of consciousness, but headaches and cognitive difficulties can persist. Additional concussions over time only create more cumulative brain damage. Recommended treatment often includes avoiding physical activity and resting one’s mind from rigorous mental exertion.

Does the recovery period allow athletes to eventually gear up again? Yes. Are they then at risk for further brain damage caused by more concussions down the road? Absolutely.

One of the most devastating effects of multiple concussions comes with a foreboding title: chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Over many years, this degenerative brain condition can cause symptoms ranging from memory loss to depression. The NCAA recently allocated $70 million for a medical monitoring fund after recognizing that college football players have three times the risk of those who don’t play football of having CTE-related symptoms.

What did Webster, Long and Seau have in common? All were confirmed after their deaths to suffer from CTE. I’m not suggesting that Karageorge definitely had CTE, nor am I proposing that student athletes throw in the towels. Instead, health professionals, athletes and students must all acknowledge the potentially grim results of concussions immediately in order to prevent the undesirable.

In spring 2013, The Herald reported on Vince Tumbleson ’13.5, who was initially told by Health Services to spend two weeks recovering but ultimately took a medical leave of absence. Tumbleson was one of 70 Brown athletes who experienced concussions in the 2012-13 school year and one of 1.7 million estimated to experience a TBI each year. This doesn’t factor in concussions that aren’t reported — ones that go unnoticed, as athletes are told they “just got the wind knocked out of them” and run back onto the field.

Pom Bunsermvicha ’16 has experienced two concussions during her time at Brown. After each one, she told me, neither she nor those with her when the injury occurred realized something was wrong until she expressed her discomfort hours later. Doctors ordered her to undergo cognitive rest after both incidents, though she recalled that she did not feel fully recovered from the second concussion until another week after her designated rest period. Now, she notices more mistakes in her writing that were not present prior to the injuries.

Short-term care is important for relieving symptoms and resuming everyday activities, but to prevent secondary symptoms like Bunsermvicha’s and tragedies like Karageorge’s death, athletic associations must recognize the need for extensive, consistent support. University health care providers and athletic coaches should follow up with players with concussions over time to examine lasting effects. Concussion awareness information must communicate long-term effects just as seriously as the immediate headache. With proactive efforts, doctors can make the proper interventions to diagnose and treat post-concussion symptoms before their effects are dire.

One of the biggest sources of potential support for those at risk? Teammates, both on and off the field. We all must work to reduce the stigma of depression, especially among student athletes. Pain and discomfort — be it physical or mental — are not feelings to be shielded with helmets and shoulder pads.

Athletes with suspected concussions from in-game injuries are evaluated either by a physician present at sports events or by a certified athletic trainer, according to Russell Fiore, Brown’s head athletic trainer, in a University news release from October. But as cases such as Bunsermvicha’s demonstrate, these professionals aren’t always available. Athletes or not, students should recognize potential causes and symptoms of concussions to ensure their peers receive timely treatment.

Even with technological advances designed to make players’ equipment more safe and secure, the human head is not immune to injury. If we cannot prevent concussions, we must work to treat them efficiently and effectively, no matter how devastating or seemingly small. In an email, Bunsermvicha wrote her biggest recommendation for potential concussion sufferers: “Get proper treatment, right away!”

Gabriella Corvese ’15 studies public health and can be reached at gabriella_corvese@brown.edu.