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The concussion club

Putting their heads together for recovery

By TODD SLISS
TODD SLISS PHOTOS

Clockwise from bottom, Juliette Meyers, Tyler Brody, Scott Cohen and Kyle Stern.

 
The concussion recovery care package put together by Scarsdale students
 

Scarsdale High School juniors Scott Cohen, Kyle Stern, Tyler Brody and Juliette Meyers have a common bond, something they certainly wish they didn’t share. But because they share it with each other, they are hoping to share it with others, too.

The foursome falls into the category of the roughly 10 percent of concussion and multiple concussion sufferers who take longer than four weeks to recover. What they have learned over the past few years is that their symptoms and recovery did not have to be as bad, and clearly they were not alone in their suffering.

“Kyle and I were there for each other because we kind of overlapped at one point,” Brody said. “That was good to have someone who was going through the same thing and had the same kind of restrictions so we could both get through it together.”

While others have made it their mission to ban tackling in football or the header for soccer — those just so happen to be the two sports where the four received their concussions — these Raiders have focused their efforts on the other side of the traumatic brain injury: recovery. They’re there to educate kids and parents about the dangers of not seeking a diagnosis and medical treatment right away, not following concussion protocols, which have come a long way in just the last few years, and at the same time serving as a post-concussion support group for students who fall in that minority group of not recovering within 7-10 days for Return to Life and Return to Sports. For many it’s not days of missing school and sports, but months on end.

“It’s an amazing thing because we turned a bad situation into something positive,” Stern said. “That was one of our main goals as a group because a lot of people, even adults, when they have a serious injury it can be life-changing. To take something that happened to you and try to prevent others from making the same mistakes you did, is crucial. That’s been our main drive.”

It all started with Cohen reaching out to the Sports Legacy Institute, now the Concussion Legacy Institute. The group wasn’t doing much with high schools, but Cohen wouldn’t take no for an answer and CLI finally realized how important a demographic high school students are.

“I felt like something positive needed to come out of my situation, not just a cautionary tale,” Cohen said. “I wanted to help people and get the name out for SLI. They really don’t work with high school students. I’m one of two high school ambassadors they have.”

Cohen got together with his friends who shared a similar experience and they are in the early stages of organizing what is an exclusive club. They aren’t looking for “help” or anyone looking to build a résumé — they want “qualified” group members who can help others based on their firsthand knowledge of the potential terrors of a concussion. Though not an official high school extracurricular activity, the group has been receiving guidance from assistant principal Dr. Christopher Griffin.

The first major public event for the group will be hosting CLI founder Chris Nowinski at the Little Theatre of the high school on Oct. 14 from 9:30-10:30 a.m. Nowinski, a former football player and professional wrestler, is on a crusade against putting people in harm’s way when it comes to their brains. Nowinski spoke at a concussion seminar held at the high school in 2012 and ended up storming off the stage after an exchange with an audience member. Cohen’s goal is for an educational presentation, not a contentious experience.

In his research, Stern found that many retired NFL players have said they don’t want their own children playing the sport. “That spoke to me,” Stern said. (In December a major movie called “Concussion” starring Will Smith will be released about the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in former NFL players’ brains.)

Another project has been creating concussion survival kits, which as of now include two decks of playing cards, Uno, checkers, Connect Four, Legos and a brain concussion journal, all things that helped or could have helped the group members get through some of the tough times. “Anything that makes you happy that you can do, you want to do it all the time,” Brody said.

The first 10 bags will include a copy of Nowinski’s book, “Head Games: How much of you are you willing to lose for a game?” that were donated by CLI.

“I went to doctors upon doctors trying to figure out what to do — some with meds, some not, concussion tests here, concussion tests there,” Stern said. “Nothing for me solved the issues. The only experts on concussions are the people who have gone through it. Every concussion is different and has different ramifications. To have someone who knows somewhat what’s going on inside their head and that they’re not alone means the world.

“I thought about when I had my concussion what could have helped me and the best solution is for someone else to be there and guide me through it, talk me through whatever doubts I had going through the process. I had a lot of depression and was I the only one? Collaborating with Scott and others made me realize this was the thing to do and it would hopefully be beneficial to kids in the future.”


Concussion club stories

Baseball is Cohen’s favorite sport, but as a big guy he loved being able to use his size to his advantage on the football field. “Football was really perfect for me in that sense,” he said. “Eventually it did end up hurting me a lot, but having that outlet to take aggression out was really nice. Even with the injury I wish I could play. I still love it, still love watching it even though I see all the big picture problems with it now.”

The concussion happened during preseason for junior varsity football freshman year in 2013. Cohen does not remember what happened on the hot, intense day of practice, but one of his teammates — he does not know who, but is extremely thankful — noticed something wasn’t right with Cohen and escorted him off the field.

“There was just one play where I just got knocked down and wasn’t getting up,” Cohen said. “I eventually got back up to the line and I was like a wreck. Apparently I was crying. The kid who was blocking me finally said, ‘You need to get off the field,’ and brought me to the coaches, who brought me to the sideline. When I came to I was just sitting in the shade between my dad, who was actually passing by and dropping off my lunch, and one of my coaches.”

After waiting for the trainer at the high school, Cohen was told he likely had a concussion and headed to the doctor the next day. His recovery was slow in terms of cognitive improvement. There were more doctors and more slow recovery.

Cohen tried going back to school after a week because he felt he was feeling better. He was doing limited work, but on the third day he woke up “feeling horrible. My head was killing me, I was feeling dizzy. I didn’t go to school the next month and a half. Going back to school after that was difficult. I couldn’t do gym, couldn’t do art because it was too visually stimulating, couldn’t read a lot of stuff because the font was too small and would hurt my head. Math was a big issue for me.” He did feel better later on once he was granted extra time for math, a big stress reliever for him. “Math was the only thing after a while that was a lingering issue,” Cohen said.

Once he was back for good, before school, after school and free periods were all spent meeting with teachers to catch up as much as possible. “Not everyone was super understanding,” Cohen said. “One teacher in particular, Mr. [Stephen] Mounkhall, my English teacher from freshman year, he knew exactly what I was going through because his mom had a concussion. Having him there and having him know what it was about felt really good.”

That was Cohen’s second concussion. His first came a year earlier at the end of his eighth grade football season. It was minor and he missed less than a week of school. “The big thing they said was once you get one you are more susceptible to others and a bunch of different factors played into it at that point,” he said.

Cohen no longer plays football for obvious reasons or basketball because there could be some contact, but he does swim and play baseball, though for baseball he can’t play catcher and has extra padding in his batting helmet.

“To feel 100 percent and comfortable playing sports — a good amount of it was mental — probably took six months after the injury,” Cohen said. “I was not super sure and a little scared. For me, sports are a huge part of my life. If I couldn’t have returned to sports after this I don’t know what I would have done. I just would have been crushed.”

Varsity football coach Andy Verboys reached out to him to offer a role with the program, including everything from a jersey to workouts with the exception of contact drills and game play. While Cohen appreciated the gesture, he decided to focus his energy on helping others.


Making mistakes

As difficult as Cohen’s recovery was, Stern’s was unthinkable. What jumps out when talking to Stern, who had two concussions from soccer playing with Yonkers United Golden Touch about six months apart as an eighth-grader, about his experience are three words: “I was suicidal.”

The first concussion came when Stern went up for a header. He’s “fuzzy on it,” but Stern was hit from behind by another player and knocked unconscious. One doctor told him he’d be fine with some medication and rest. He went back to school after a week despite having issues like trouble concentrating, light sensitivity, headaches and an inability to cope. “I kind of survived with it until it became part of life,” Stern said. “Then I got the second one.”

This time he got hit and his nose was “cracked straight down the middle” and he was knocked out again. Now that the family had been educated about concussions, they knew what to do, but multiple concussion effects were now the issue, especially if Stern had never fully recovered for Return to Life and/or Return to Sports.

In addition to worsening of the previous conditions, Stern said, “I lost all sense of balance. I couldn’t walk straight. Memory was fuzzy short term. Obviously my nose was a mess and I was a mess. From that I actually went through massive, massive depression. I had to see a therapist. I thought it was only me and me against the world. At that time I was actually suicidal because I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

The timing played a role. It was now summer and his friends were all doing fun things and his twin brother was off to camp. He was a rising high school freshman trapped at home trying to recover, but wishing he could be with his peers.

“For hours upon hours the entire summer I was alone,” Stern said. “That’s why we thought of this group because Scott had a similar situation. I don’t want kids going through concussions to be alone like I was. I know how it can end and I don’t want it to end that way. I think if I had someone there that knew what I was going through and knew it was all going to be all right in the end, it would have meant the world.”

The depression was the worst symptom, but Cohen credits listening to music with getting him through the lowest of lows.

Then there were the mistakes.

“One of my mistakes was I didn’t listen to anyone and I just carried on with life as it was,” Stern said. “Although I wound up getting better, for almost four months I couldn’t do anything I wanted to. It truthfully could have been cut in half at least if I had followed and been more careful with my decisions throughout those months. Those changes have had an ever-lasting effect on me.”

One no-no for Stern was telling his parents he was fine and that he could join his brother at camp. He was lying, of course. “I went up to camp and everything got worse,” Stern said. “I didn’t even make it a week. It was devastating, but I couldn’t do it. I want to prevent kids from making those same mistakes. Waiting the extra two weeks here will save you a month in the future.”

Soccer is still a big part of Stern’s life. He plays travel for his Yonkers team and is on the varsity B team at Scarsdale. “I can’t play the same way,” he said. “I’m not the same player. I never put myself in a position to get hurt. That’s No. 1 for me. It took a while for me to get back into it. It’s hard to go back to what got you hurt, but I love the game of soccer and I have found a happy medium to play and keep myself, mostly my head, safe.”

Of course this impacts Stern’s role on both teams — Will his playing time be reduced? Will he be on the field for a key moment? — but the fact that he’s able to stay in the game and have that feeling of being in a soccer community helps keep him in a good place.


Tyler, too

Brody’s concussion also came as an eighth-grader. Like Cohen, his was from football. Brody, third on the depth chart, got the start one day and wanted to make the most of his opportunity to see some good field time.

“I was playing and having fun and it was the second quarter when I got hit,” he said. “I was running up the middle and I just got destroyed by three defenders. One of them, his head slammed directly into mine. Then at that point I don’t remember what happened next. I was just on the sideline and I didn’t feel right. I didn’t go back into the game, thankfully. I knew something was wrong.”

The first doctor Brody saw said he’d suffered a minor concussion and would be back in school in a week. Headaches, light and sound sensitivity, fatigue and an inability to focus persisted for weeks. A second opinion resulted in an expected recovery period of six weeks. Still not on target, but closer than the first doctor’s advice.

“For four to six months I wasn’t functioning correctly,” Brody said. “I was out of school. It was just really tough because it’s frustrating to know that you can’t do the things you normally used to do, especially in school. You can’t do math like you used to do, you can’t focus for more than a certain amount of time. It was really just difficult.”

The new doctor told Brody to focus on rest and recovery, but that wasn’t working for him. Brody realized he needed to do the opposite in his Return to Life, but without pushing himself too hard, which is something that is commonplace today. At the time he had to battle it out with his parents, who were following doctor’s orders. “I had to do more stuff to get used to it to get back,” he said. “They didn’t really know what they were talking about.”

Since this was eighth grade the two biggest focuses were keeping up to speed in math and Spanish to prepare for high school, which he did.

Brody now focuses on tennis, having given up three sports, football, lacrosse and basketball.

“It was definitely a change that I had to adapt to,” Brody said. “It was different not to go to practice. It was an adjustment. I do agree with football and lacrosse more than basketball. I do like basketball, but it’s probably for the better.”

His sister Halle was also going to be part of the support group, but she suffered an ice skating concussion that was so bad she couldn’t catch up on her work at SHS and has transferred to a private school to repeat sophomore year.


Meyers’s missed month

Meyers’s concussion came freshman year at Scarsdale playing for the varsity B girls’ soccer team. It was the last game of the season and she got accidentally punched in the eye. “I didn’t know at first I had a concussion and I kept playing,” she said. “I was confused at first, but I didn’t think much of it. I was heading the ball and that made it worse.”

Meyers was suffering migraines and had trouble focusing. A week later she went to the doctor and was diagnosed with a concussion. A month later she returned to school.

“I was sleeping, basically,” Meyers said. “I couldn’t do much of anything. You can’t go on the computer and small screens are bad, so I couldn’t be on my phone. I was just having headaches. I would go to the doctor a lot just to keep updated.”

It didn’t help that many of her teachers did not know how to deal with this kind of situation. She ended up dropping some classes, but once she was back at school she got herself on track.

Like Stern, Meyers continues to play soccer. She’s on Scarsdale’s varsity team this fall.

“I’m not really supposed to head the ball now,” she said. “There are people on my team who have had multiple concussions and they have to wear a head guard. I’ve only had one so I don’t wear it.

“I can’t let it stop me from playing, but I am definitely more cautious now. You have to be mindful of your surroundings when you’ve had a concussion.”

If it happens again? “Now I’ll know the symptoms,” Meyers said. “I’ll know everything I didn’t know before so it will be easier to get treatment.”

With all they have learned by necessity, Cohen, Stern, Brody and Meyers are only scratching the surface with their concussion club. Talk about a brainstorm.



Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

 

September 18, 2015