On November 1, 2014, the Wellesley College soccer team hosted Springfield College for the first round round of the annual NEWMAC tournament. Gen Crotty ’18 jumped up to head the ball during the second half of the highly anticipated game and collided with a member of the opposing team. Crotty was taken off the field immediately, and she was later diagnosed with the fourth and most serious concussion of her soccer career.
“My concussion was a bad one,” Crotty commented. “I went to Health Services for treatment, and they referred me to a neurologist in the town of Wellesley. I went in weekly to get scans, and I couldn’t play soccer for a couple of months.”
Crotty’s experience with concussions is familiar to several members of Wellesley’s athletic community. Of the 237 students who compete on a varsity level team, approximately 10 to 15 suffer from sports-related concussions per year. While head-injuries occur most frequently in contact sports such as soccer, basketball, field-hockey and lacrosse, athletes who participate in non-contact sports are also at risk.
The Wellesley College sports medicine team does not take concussions or their role in assisting athletes who suffer from them lightly. Whenever an athlete endures a severe blow to the head, they are taken off the field and seen by one of the athletic trainers on campus. Some of the most common symptoms of a concussion include a headache, dizziness, confusion, sensitivity to light and noise, loss of concentration and other abnormalities that affect the athlete’s daily routine.
Athletes who experience multiple concussive symptoms are sent to Health Services for further treatment. If the athlete is diagnosed with a concussion, Health Services becomes responsible for overseeing their recovery and communicating the details of the injury with parents, coaches, class deans and professors.
Once an athlete is deemed asymptomatic, they are sent back to the sports medicine team and given a computerized neurocognitive test known as the ImPact. If they pass the ImPact, the athlete begins a standard return to play protocol in which they undergo four exertion tests over a period of several days. The athlete is cleared for participation once they can exercise using the maximum amount of exertion without experiencing any concussive symptoms.
This recovery period can persist for a few days or for several months depending on the athlete and the severity of the concussion. Head athletic trainer Nikki Rybko stressed that the recovery process usually presents challenges to the athlete being affected: “You’re telling a person who’s used to exercising several hours a day and being surrounded by their teammates to limit their physical and mental activity. It’s also hard academically because you’re trying not to fall behind, but you have to be on cognitive rest.”
Rybko likened the symptoms of a concussion to PTSD symptoms. “I think that in itself is really difficult to deal with during college when you’re away from your family. The return to play is difficult because athletes often have setbacks. You’ll feel normal and then bike with exertion and get dizzy. It’s hard because you were doing better and you want to be playing.”
Health Services works closely with the sports medicine team to monitor the emotional along with the physical wellbeing of the athlete. Rybko encourages athletes who are struggling during the recovery process to seek support from loved ones and through professional counseling services such as the Stone Center.
Though there is little that an athlete can do to prevent head injuries while competing, the recent media attention surrounding concussions in the NFL has altered the ways in which trainers, coaches and players treat the injury after it has occurred. Assistant Athletic Trainer Jenae Van Orden shared, “We have more information on the short and long term effects of concussions. Before when someone got hit and then went back on the field they were said to be ‘so tough.’ Now when someone tries to do that it’s like, ‘Oh no. That person needs to be seen.’”
Rybko commented, “The education the media offers is great, especially for high school athletes who don’t have access to trainers. Athletes are beginning to stop playing right when they start noticing concussive symptoms, and this along with proper rest allows for fuller recoveries and less time off the field.”
Athletes should continue to educate themselves and their teammates on concussions. They are also encouraged to stop playing and seek help from the sports medicine team the moment they begin experiencing symptoms. Acting immediately and taking the recovery process seriously leads to a healthier mind and less time away from representing the Wellesley Blue.