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Braving Bad Bumps

Concussion awareness in Fairfield County



Eloise Gacetta has taken time off from sports to try acting and photography but still hopes to return to her first love: soccer.

Photo by Kristin Burke

Eloise Gacetta is a polite and cheerful young teenager. Like many Fairfield girls her age, she loves to play soccer and was dancing before she began kindergarten. But for many months, this eighth-grader hasn’t been able to kick a soccer ball, dance, ski, or even bounce on a trampoline because of an injury that’s a growing concern for parents with active kids: concussion.

In early 2014, Gacetta was knocked down during a lacrosse game and suffered her fifth concussion in less than three years. Her parents Cindy and Dan pulled her out of sports, only for the teenager to get two more concussions within a year through accidental knocks at school. “It’s been really devastating for her not to play sports,” says mother Cindy. The 13-year-old has found new activities, like theater and photography, with the help of her parents who still hope she will resume team sports in the future. 

Many parents are worried by the prevalence of concussions and the traumatic impact on children’s health and lifestyle. However the good news is that more is being done than ever before to promote awareness of the brain injury and to ensure that children and teenagers get time to recover before returning to school or to the sports field. Pioneering new measures have been introduced in Norwalk and may come into force in other Fairfield County towns before the end of the year. 

A concussion is caused by a bump or blow to the head or a jolt to the body that causes a whiplash motion. The rapid movement can make the brain bounce around or twist in the skull, damaging brain cells and triggering chemical changes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 170,000 kids and teens go to the emergency department each year for suspected sports- or recreation-related traumatic brain injuries, including concussions.

According to the CDC, some of the most common symptoms of a concussion are a headache; tiredness and a foggy feeling are also frequent symptoms. Fairfield-based Dr. Michael Lee has been specializing in treating concussions in children and young adults for the past 12 years. Physicians in Fairfield County, as well as New York State, often send their more difficult concussion cases to him. He says, “kids’ concussion symptoms usually last longer than adults’ symptoms, which last a week or less. Eighty percent of pediatric concussions resolve within three weeks,” he says. 

Eloise Gacetta sustained her sixth concussion after a classmate opened a locker door, accidentally banging Eloise’s head. She missed days of school and her grades dropped because she had trouble concentrating, suffered up to 12 headaches during the day, and insomnia at night. She still worries she’ll get another one. “It could be as little as bumping my head while getting into the car,” she explains. The young teenager was able to offer support to her older brother who sustained his first concussion in a more traditional fashion: while playing ice hockey. 

Eloise’s brother Gareth, like all Connecticut high- school athletes who play for their official school team, is covered by Connecticut’s 2010 Return to Play law. This mandates students must be cleared to play by a physician before getting back to sports. (All 50 states have a version of the ‘Return to Play’ law.) The law in Connecticut also made concussion education for high-school coaches and athletes on school teams compulsory. An update in 2014 added mandatory concussion education for parents, but failed to extend rules to middle-school sports and to sports groups outside of school. “The real problem is in middle school,” says Dr. Lee, who has lectured extensively and written numerous articles about concussions. “Parents aren’t required to know. These kids slip through the cracks.”

Katherine Snedaker, a national concussion awareness campaigner and Norwalk resident, is determined to improve the situation. She spearheaded a rule change at Norwalk’s Recreation & Parks department in early 2015 that forced all sports groups using the city’s fields and facilities to ensure their coaches get annual concussion training and adhere to rules about returning injured athletes to full participation. Her campaign doesn’t stop in Norwalk. “In 2015, I want to get all Fairfield County towns to pass concussion guidelines for all youth sports,” says Snedaker, who founded the awareness organizations PinkConcussions Inc. and SportsCAPP. 

For his part, Dr. Lee says he would like to see less contact in sports that are known to have significant concussions, for example reducing hitting drills in football, headers in soccer, and checking in ice hockey. Still he says there’s been a big improvement in the last five years in terms of concussion education. “People have become much more aware,” says Dr. Lee. “We are in a much better place.”

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