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Concussions: Spotting first concussion critical

Cheney A.D. Jim Missel says he still feels the effects of concussions years after playing football at Montana State. (Dan Pelle)
Cheney A.D. Jim Missel says he still feels the effects of concussions years after playing football at Montana State. (Dan Pelle)

An athlete receiving a second concussion before fully recovering from the first falls into a dangerous category known as Secondary Impact Syndrome (SIS).

One leading expert on such injuries, Dr. Robert Cantu of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine, believes that 50 percent of these SIS incidents result in death.

Valley Christian football player Drew Swank, then 17, died from head trauma he received in an eight-man football game at LaCrosse-Washtucna in 2009. In a pending lawsuit against the school, an administrator, coaches and a family doctor, the family alleges their son suffered a concussion in a game the week before the fatal injury only to be cleared to play the next week, where he suffered a second traumatic impact.

Zack Lystedt, a gifted 13-year-old football player on his Maple Valley, Wash., middle school team in 2006, played both offense and defense and loved to be in the middle of every play. In an Oct. 12 game, he struck his head on the ground after making a tackle and video shows him holding his helmet in both hands, rocking back and forth in pain.

Lystedt was taken to the sidelines and, three plays later, it was halftime. By the start of the third quarter, the youngster was back in the game. After the game he collapsed on the field and was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in downtown Seattle, where he underwent emergency surgery to remove the left and right side of his skull to relieve pressure on his swollen brain.

He suffered multiple strokes. He spent a week on a ventilator and three weeks in a coma. It took four weeks in a nursing home, three months at a children’s hospital for rehabilitation and a total of nine months before he spoke his first words. It was 13 months before he moved an arm or leg and 20 months on a feeding tube. And it was three years before he could stand on his own two feet unassisted.

By that time, the Washington State legislature had passed what has come to be known as the Lystedt Law.

The state law, passed in 2009 and since passed in more than 20 other states, requires a doctor’s authorization before a player can return to a game if a concussion is suspected.

“It’s just not worth it to try and tough something like this out,” Cheney High athletic director Jim Missel said. “In the long term, it’s just not worth it. Trust me.”

Missel makes sure every athlete that comes through the programs he oversees understands the risks, and doubly sure they understand the warning signs and symptoms of a blow to the head. No matter where it happens – whether it’s on the football field, soccer pitch, basketball court or on the sidelines.

“I make sure they all know,” he insists. “And I have all of my coaches, my paid coaches and my unpaid coaches, go through the certification process with the WIAA every year so that I make sure they know what to look for, especially in regards to concussions.”

That education has come a long way from the days when Missel played football at Mead (class of 1977) and as a defensive lineman on Montana State’s Big Sky Conference championship team in 1979.

“The biggest difference was in how we treated head injuries,” he said. “I remember vividly a game I played against Fresno State and I feel the effects of that game to this day. I took a big hit to the head. In those days, though, you went to the sidelines, got some water and went back into the game.

 “I am living proof of what can happen and how damaging concussions can be long-term. I know my memory, my concentration and other cognitive functions aren’t what they should be, and I am certain it goes back to the concussions I suffered playing football.”

Steve Christilaw