Battle plan for concussions

Santa Rosa's Devin Murray, wearing a concussion band, chases a loose rebound between Maria Carrillo's Aaliyah Sowards (No. 31) and Claire Wheeler during a game on Jan. 28.  Credit: Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat

Santa Rosa’s Devin Murray, wearing a concussion band, chases a loose rebound between Maria Carrillo’s Aaliyah Sowards (No. 31) and Claire Wheeler during a game on Jan. 28. Credit: Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat


By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Santa Rosa High girls basketball team was playing at a preseason tournament in Pacifica in early December when sophomore Devin Murray found herself wrestling with an opponent for a loose ball.

“My hand slipped out from the ball, and the back of my head hit right on the floor,” Murray recalled. “I didn’t black out, surprisingly. But I was fuzzy. Everything was kind of blurry, and I kind of lost track of time.”

Murray’s father told her on the long drive home that he had never heard her scream so loud before. She didn’t remember doing it. Murray had a concussion.

She would miss four games over three weeks, and her classroom retention wouldn’t really come back for two months.

Murray’s diagnosis and treatment were textbook, largely because Santa Rosa Junior College head athletic trainer Monica Ohkubo, who also helps out the Santa Rosa High athletic program, advised her immediately, even before she got to the Kaiser Permanente emergency room that night.

Not every kid is so fortunate. Starting this autumn, however, student-athletes at all five Santa Rosa public high schools will be supervised by certified athletic trainers and given baseline cognitive tests to help evaluate head injuries.

The Santa Rosa City Schools board voted Feb.27 to initiate both advances during the 2013-14 school year.

“I think it’s a great move, and long overdue,” said Steve Chisholm, Murray’s coach at Santa Rosa High. “It allows somebody with expertise in the field to use their experience to make the calls, instead of putting that decision on a coach who’s had maybe 20 minutes of training.”

Experts like Ohkubo have been advocating for game-dedicated trainers for some time. As of this moment, Casa Grande High in Petaluma is believed to be the only local school with a certified athletic trainer at all contact sporting events. Next school year, the roll will include Santa Rosa, Montgomery, Maria Carrillo, Piner and Elsie Allen high schools, affecting about 11,000 students — not counting kids from opposing teams who might benefit from having a trainer at their games.

Each of the Santa Rosa high schools will work with a Sonoma State student pursuing a master’s degree in athletic training. (The trainers will make $15,000 for 36 weeks’ work.) The grad students will be armed with bachelor’s degrees in athletic training and certificates that qualify them to work games.

What’s more, those trainers will have baseline cognitive testing at their disposal.

Before a contact sport begins its season — and that includes football, boys and girls soccer, boys and girls basketball, wrestling, baseball and softball — each athlete in that sport will take a lengthy online test that measures memory, concentration and problem solving. If a player is suspected of suffering a concussion, the retests can help determine his or her level of impairment.

It’s an important tool for doctors to use when evaluating injured athletes.

The Santa Rosa schools will subscribe to the ImPACT baseline testing platform, which is currently used at Analy and El Molino, as well as SSU and SRJC. Casa Grande uses a different brand, Concussion Vital Signs.

Sonoma State kinesiology professor Steven Winter, who helps oversee the graduate program there, estimates that the new protocols will cost Santa Rosa City Schools close to $90,000 per year: $75,000 for trainers’ fees, $10,000 for supplies such as tape and bandages, and $3,750 to $5,000 for testing.
That’s not a deal-killer for a board with an annual budget of $115-$120 million.

It was Santa Rosa City Schools board President Bill Carle who got the ball rolling back in November 2011. Spurred by an article in The Press Democrat on Casa Grande’s baseline program, Carle submitted a board member request for information that directed staff to contact the school for details on its system.

The wheels of progress did not move quickly. On Sept. 26, 2012, Carle requested to include an item on baseline testing on a board of education agenda.

So it was last Nov. 14 that the board members took a deep look at the state of concussion awareness and treatment at its schools. They listened to presentations from Ohkubo and from the doctors of North Coast Concussion Management. They sifted through California Interscholastic Federation bylaws and fact sheets, newspaper articles, Center for Disease Control pamphlets and information on the major baseline testing systems.

At that meeting, the board asked staff members to draw up specific options, including funding. They came back Feb. 27 with four options for athletic trainers, and three relative to the cognitive software.

“This wasn’t the normal type of thing where staff does a little research and brings back recommendations two or three months later,” Carle said. “We need to work with all the ADs and coaches, and the higher education facilities. … My attitude was, I wanted it as quick as possible, because we’re talking about the health of students. But we got to where we needed to go. And when we got to the decision, it was an easy decision.”

The vote was 7-0 in favor.

So this fall, for the first time, Santa Rosa high schools will have athletic trainers administering baseline cognitive tests.
Certainly, there are details to be sorted out.

“Football is a contact sport. We’re engaged in contact from Day One,” Maria Carrillo football coach Jay Higgins said. “The idea of baseline testing is to get it done before we’re on the field. I’m curious to see how that’s all going to be problem-solved. It’s not an impossible situation, just something we have to figure out.”

As word gets around, those who learn of the new practices are applauding the decision.

“I think that’s a quality move for the school board to address, and to take on,” said John Reed of Santa Rosa, whose oldest son, Zach, has played youth tackle football with the Santa Rosa Stallions and PAL Bears. “I think it’s obviously tough when a kid has a concussion and you don’t have the baseline test to measure it against. I think this is a way for us to recognize concussions because that’s really difficult, recognizing the severity of a blow to the head.”

Reed, who refereed football for five years, doesn’t yet know where Zach and his other two children will attend high school. If it’s one of the Santa Rosa public schools, he said, he’ll be glad to know there is a baseline-testing program in their corner.

“I had a great high school and college experience in football,” Reed said. “I had my bell rung a couple of times, but I don’t think I suffered any lasting damage. I’m completely comfortable with (Zach) playing high school football if he chose to do that.
“But I feel a little more warm and fuzzy about the whole benchmarks system, because I think that would give us the opportunity to recognize a blow to the head as a concussion and act accordingly.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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