A number of Swarthmore students, athletes and non-athletes alike, have sustained serious concussions over the past year. The Gazette spoke with a number of them about their injuries and how they have affected their academic performance and ability to lead their lives.
There is a consensus among Swarthmore’s medical trainers, student-athletes, and administrators that during the past few years, awareness about concussions symptoms has increased allowing more players to report any possible concussions and follow the appropriate medical guidance. What the rest of the student body may not be aware of, though, is just how much concussions can alter a student’s academic and social life.
Common concussion syndromes include headaches, sensitivity to light, confusion, difficulty with concentration, depression, and drowsiness. Many who have sustained concussions have difficulty concentrating in class.
In the fall of 2010, senior Brett McLarney was playing soccer with his coach and a group of players when he was accidentally kicked in the face. After an examination in the emergency room, the doctor suggested that he might have a concussion. McLarney continued to take classes, but he eventually took time off from the spring 2011 semester in order to speed the recovery process. Though his situation has improved, some symptoms still remain, including occasional dizziness and the loss of a train of thought.
“It hurts to know that I’m not getting the most out of the Swarthmore experience here,” McLarney said.
Normal daily activities — eating at Sharples, reading a book, staring at a computer screen — can suddenly become difficult and time-consuming tasks.
Andrew Greenblatt ’12 was at practice before the first basketball scrimmage of this season when a player’s elbow collided with the bridge of his nose. Alhough he didn’t lose consciousness, he recalls feeling woozy and saying words that were, according to teammates present, incomprehensible. His symptoms have subsided enough that he can now ignore them for stretches of time, but he still deals with headaches and feelings of dizziness. Upon consulting the administration, he eventually decided to take the current semester off.
“I wasn’t living free because there was so much time limit on things I could do,” Greenblatt said. “It’s difficult for people to understand because it’s an injury you can’t see.”
Sophomore Nia Jones suffered a minor concussion in the fall when a ball hit her head during field hockey practice. As a result, she wasn’t able to play in a game against Haverford that could have advanced Swarthmore to the playoffs. Though she recovered in about a week, she wasn’t able to concentrate well during the recovery period which led her to contact her professors to seek appropriate help.
For certain students, even tasks as simple as going to the supermarket and looking for items to buy can present a challenge, causing dizziness and anxiety attacks. Some students have reported feeling disconnected from their teammates and friends as a result of the depression and drowsiness caused by their injury.
McCleary Philbin ’14, who suffered a concussion on the women’s soccer team’s summer trip to the Netherlands and a second concussion in season, said that “it’s really important for people who haven’t gone through a concussion before not to be embarrassed about what they’re going through and not be worried that it’s something else.”
According to the athletic trainers, the recovery process varies depending on both the student and the sport. A soccer player, for instance, may not be able to return to the field as soon as a cross country runner can, due to the physical nature of the sport and the subsequent risk of worsening the injury.
Nevertheless, in order to ensure that all student athletes recover completely, the athletic training staff employs a meticulous diagnosis and recovery process to maximize the chances that student-athletes will return to their normal routines in full health.
When the trainers suspect a possible concussion after observing the athlete’s behavior, they assess how grave the situation is by chatting with the student. For instance, a trainer may ask the student the score of the current game in order to see whether the student can respond properly. In addition, the trainers administer written assessments such as the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool 2 (SCAT2) in order to assess any changes in their physical and mental abilities. Afterwards, the athlete is given appropriate medical instructions which include meeting a concussion specialist as well as being sent to the emergency room if necessary.
The Return to Participation Protocol (RTP), designed by the Swarthmore athletic trainers, is a five-day return process for athletes that involves light exercises and drills to make sure that they are ready to rejoin their teams. If any concussion symptoms return, the protocol is put to a halt, and the athlete must be asymptomatic for 24 hours before returning to day one of the return process. Only after completing the process is the athlete allowed to return to training.
More important than the return to the field is the return to a concussion-free life.
“We’re trying to protect them beyond Swarthmore,” Head Athletic Trainer Marie Mancini said.
If the trainers determine that the injury will affect the student’s academic life, they contact Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Diane Anderson, who guides student-athletes through their academic life as they recover from concussions.
“It is extraordinarily difficult for any athlete to suddenly not be able to play,” Anderson said. “Athletes are used to being physically active, and to have a concussion and be inactive for a period of time is a double blow.”
The Dean may contact the student’s professors to notify them of the situation or even suggest taking a semester off if the injury is severe. According to those who continued their semesters at less than full capacity, the professors provided assistance through the course so that the students may successfully complete the semester. Of course, the level of helpfulness varies, with a few students noting that some of their coaches and professors viewed their concussion as a minor injury rather than a serious one. Nevertheless, a general consensus exists among student-athletes who experienced concussions that the administration and the faculty have been understanding and helpful.
“Knowing that I had the administration that completely understood what I was going through, it was easier to deal with,” Greenblatt said.