Wellesley high student spearheads concussion discussion

By Cassidy Swanson

With concern and awareness for sports-related concussions at an all-time high, Wellesley parents and educators gathered this week to discuss with medical specialists how best to deal with and help students recovering from concussion.

The forum, held Tuesday night in the auditorium at Wellesley High School, was organized by WHS senior Ian Ettinger. A varsity athlete, Ettinger has suffered from sports-related concussions and struggled in school as a result. He interviewed other classmates who’d had concussions and made a video, originally intended as an end-of-year senior project.

“I realized I was so sick of concussions…so I decided to just move this earlier,” he said of the decision to host an open forum. “I think any awareness [for concussions] helps a lot.”

The forum featured presentations from Stuart Glassman, M.D., of Granite Physiatry in Concord, N.H., and Neal McGrath, Ph.D. of Sports Concussion New England in Brookline. Both have worked extensively with sports-related concussion patients and had advice for parents and students dealing with concussion recovery at home, and for educators in terms of making accommodations for concussed students.

McGrath compared the recovery process for many students to the movie “Groundhog Day” – a repeated cycle of waking up and feeling poorly, exerting more energy than they should in school, and going to bed feeling even worse, because they aren’t giving themselves the time needed to rest and recover properly.

“The symptom [of a concussion] will continue if we’re not managing things right,” McGrath said. These symptoms can include headache, fatigue, and an overall “foggy” feeling that can make it very difficult for students to focus in an academic environment.

Math, foreign language and reading can become especially hard for students recovering from concussion, McGrath said. He recommends that recovering students avoid high-stress exams like the SAT, and that teachers go at the student’s pace, extend deadlines, and excuse assignments when possible.

“It’s really a matter of trying to find out how much can they do without making their condition worse,” McGrath said, adding that some concussed students have had to take a full year off school to recover. “A student can only do so much at any point in recovery.”

Glassman stressed the importance of students reporting injuries and symptoms so that concussions can be diagnosed and treated properly. He used the example of professional athletes, most recently the late football star Junior Seau, who failed to report the extent of their injuries and met untimely deaths as a result. Seau’s suicide is believed to have been the result of brain damage caused by repeated concussions from playing football.

“You really have to be telling what your symptoms are,” Glassman said. “No one is invincible. This injury can affect any kid or any star athlete at any time.”

Glassman said that the increased attention paid to sports-related concussion has been met with some backlash from the athletic community.

“When you show pictures of dead kids on the screen, it scares the daylights out of people,” he said. “A lot of the coaches [at another school I spoke at] were like, ‘Why did you do that?’ And I said, ‘Because it’s about getting the message out. It’s about safety.’”

Debbie Condren, of Wellesley, said that her daughter has suffered multiple concussions and that she struggled in school as a result. She missed four and a half months of the seventh grade from a concussion sustained during a skiing accident.

Condren said she is happy that concussions are now being looked at as a serious medical condition not to be taken lightly, and that the forum had been held to address the surrounding issues.

“Up until probably maybe halfway through our experience with concussions, it was all about getting the kids back to sports,” she said. “Nobody addressed the cognitive difficulties with dealing with a kid academically.”

As a student athlete, who’s dealt with concussions, Ettinger also said he’s glad the issue is more out in the open.

“Many of the points that [Drs. McGrath and Glassman] touched on, I suffered from personally, and I know friends of mine have suffered from the same exact things,” he said. “I think it’s nice just to broadcast it out there and get the word out.”

(Cassidy Swanson is an Emerson College journalism graduate student who is focusing on Wellesley for a school project. We thank her for contributing to The Swellesley Report.)

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