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Suddenly And Silently: Second Impact Syndrome Is Killing Our Children

I received an e-mail last week that will forever be indelibly etched in my mind.

Each day between 70 and 100 e-mails are sent, redirected or forwarded to me. I try to read, file, redirect or forward each one by the end of the day. The majority of these are directly related to producing our New Media site. Many are press releases, from non-profit organizations to pharmaceutical companies, asking us to plug "the first-over the counter dye-free liquid pain reliever," to publishers with a new book release, and so on.

My favorite e-mails come from my technical staff sharing the test URL for a new page to be uploaded, or the finalized code for an intricate application, they also come from our team of experts with ideas for new articles or from our writers sharing story ideas for our sponsors.

The most precious and immediately opened e-mails seem to arrive in the middle of the day as one or two liners from my 18 year old sons, usually along the lines of, "I got a 90 on my Latin test!" or "My game is on such and such field today" "Remember, it's my turn to use the car this Friday night - I have a date," or " Mom, can I come take you out to lunch? (Loosely translated: Mom, I am so hungry for the all you can eat Chinese buffet and I have no money-please meet me at Chang An's). The e-mails from my children re-center me on what is most important in my life: laughing, loving, connecting and living for the moment.

Paradoxically, some of my most cherished e-mails are the ones that take my breath away with despair, sadness and sorrow. They are the ones that prompt me to shut my computer off for an hour or two so that I can take a long walk while I compose my thoughts on the best way to respond to the pleas for help from a mother, uncle, grandmother or other family member who has just lost a child athlete during a game or practice from a sports injury.

Last week such an e-mail arrived in my In-box. Right there, sandwiched between two emails -one from a concerned father with a subject line reading "fifth and sixth graders getting hit in the head with volleyballs" and one from Microsoft, subject line reading: You're invited to attend the Windows XP Launch Event" - was an email with a simple subject line reading, "Matthew Colby."

Matthew's grieving uncle, Deron, was the author. Matthew, 17, was the only child of Deron's sister, Kelli Colby, from Costa Mesa, California. It started off, "My nephew, Matthew Colby, passed away on September 28th as a result of an injury he sustained during a high school football game". Matthew had apparently suffered a head injury during a game the week before, and then was allowed to play in the game one week later. He collapsed and later died. Deron had a number of requests for the Team at MomsTeam. The letter closed with, "My family is looking for answers and I would like to get as much information as possible. I would appreciate any help you could provide. Thank you."

Deron found MomsTeam during an Internet search on Second-Impact Syndrome, which is a rapid, fatal brain swelling that may occur if a person suffers another head impact - even a minor one - before the symptoms of a previous concussion have fully cleared. He told me that MomsTeam has the most extensive section on SIS he could find on the Internet. During my walk, after reading Deron's e-mail, I concluded that MomsTeam wasn't doing enough on the site to educate parents, coaches, and athletic directors on the treatment of concussions in youth sports, both in terms of the grading of concussions and when it is safe for an athlete to return to play after a concussion. It is critically important that we, as parents, know enough about the subject to advocate for our kids if they are cleared to return to play before they are ready, such as less than 15 or 20 minutes after having their "bell rung" and wobbling unsteadily off the field after a blow to the head.

One of Deron's questions to me is, "What are the standards for high schools to follow in the treatment of head injuries?" I didn't know the answer, but I knew where I could go to get it. Fortunately for me, less than two miles away were the offices of perhaps the country's foremost expert on concussions in sports, Dr. Robert Cantu, Chief of Neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts as well as Medical Director of the National Center For Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. I learned, after meeting with Dr. Cantu, that there is a lack of appreciation on the part of many parents and youth athletes themselves of the risks of returning to the playing field while they still have symptoms from an initial head injury. Coaches, especially in sports with the highest-risk of head and neck injury, may not "fully understand the risk," says Dr. Cantu, because many of them are not certified in first-aid or trained to perform even simple neurological exams on the sidelines that can detect the kind of post-traumatic head injury that requires an athlete to sit out the remainder of the game, and be evaluated daily before being allowed to return to play.

The author of the most widely used and well-known of the concussion grading system and return-to-play guidelines in the country, Dr. Cantu speaks to his peers about Second-Impact Syndrome numerous times a year all around the world. He told me that the only way to reduce the number of athletes who are put at risk of serious and permanent neurological injury, or even death, from Second-Impact Syndrome is for the MomsTeam site to reach all of the parents, aunts and uncles and to educate and inform them on the "deadly outcome of Second Impact Syndrome."

During the month of November, our editors will be working closely with Dr. Cantu to create a new, expanded, and updated area of the site devoted to the treatment of concussions and return to play guidelines. The new section will be dedicated to Matthew and all of the other young athletes who have died as a result of sustaining a head injury.

Mathew's death resonates with me on a personal level. One of my sons sustained a concussion that was so bad that some of the testing done two years ago by Cheryl Weinstein, a Diplomat in Clinical Neuropsychology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, showed a problem with a portion of his brain that controls short term memory. I remember exactly the moment that Dr. Weinstein pulled up a chair close to my son and looked him in the eye and spoke to him as if "she were his grandmother," she told that he needed to give up football. As difficult as this was for my athletically gifted son to hear, I believe she potentially saved his life. She told him that he could not afford another blow to the head and that if he did it could either kill him, or seriously impair his memory. She took lots of time to explain to my boy just how serious a matter this was. And, he listened to her. Now, I will attempt to share with MomsTeam's visitors the wisdom of Drs. Cantu and Weinstein.

Play safe and keep the drum roll,

Brooke deLench

October 13, 2001

Update: September 17, 2014. Even though I have stayed in touch with Matthew's mother over the years, and  spending a four day retreat with her and forty other grieving parents in 2001,  I had never met Deron (speak on the phone all the time) until he spoke at our summit in Boston. It was perhaps one of the most moving and rewarding experiences in our fourteen year journey of helping keep kids safe. More to come when I update you on our fourteen years of work with our  fifteen year old Teams of Angels foundation that provides support to families of children who have been hurt or died catastrophically.