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Head Games | Concussions in youth sports, the Lystedt Law and a local response
From afar, Blake Miller looks like any other up and coming high school football coach. He exudes energy, clearly possesses a knowledge of the game and has a seamless connection with the players he works with. Probably because just a few months ago, he was one of them.
During a jamboree in June, Miller, now a senior at Issaquah High School, suffered the sixth concussion of his life and third in the past calendar year, prematurely ending his football career.
"I don't remember it," Miller said of his most recent concussion. "But when I got hit, I knew I was done. It was rough."
Unfortunately, Miller is far from alone.
A concussion is defined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as "a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head that can change the way the brain normally works." Symptoms include headaches, nausea, trouble balancing, dizziness, sensitivity to light or sound and concentration or memory problems, among others. Around 90 percent of concussions do not result in any loss of consciousness.
Dr. Stephen Hughes is a primary care physician specializing in traumatic brain injuries at Overlake hospital in Issaquah and has served as the team doctor for the Mount Si High School football team since 1990.
"We want people to be very much aware that a concussion injury, in many cases, is something you can't prove with a medical test (CT scan, MRI etc.)," Hughes said. "A concussion is a collection of symptoms."
Those symptoms are signs the brain is still attempting to recover from trauma and more importantly, they are a warning.
"If you take another injury, the brain has lost it's ability to regulate the environment and you end up with something more serious," Hughes warns.
Few understand that better than the Lystedt family.
Getting back to normal
Victor Lystedt is like any proud father.
"Every time Zack was up at the plate, I would always get butterflies to see how far he was going to hit the ball," Victor said. "When he was on the football field, I loved to watch him run and tackle. As a father, you want to see your son perform."
But all of that changed on a fateful October day in 2006, when the youngster from Maple Valley suffered two concussions over the course of one junior high football game. Lystedt collapsed after the game as a result of severe brain hemorrhaging and eventually had both sides of his cranium removed. He spent nearly three months slipping in and out of a coma.
It was nine months before he was able to speak and over a year before he moved on his own. He was forced to eat from a feeding tube for 20 months.
"You just take little steps and build on them," Victor said. "We just want to get back to normal."
A major piece of getting Zack as close to normal as possible is Dr. Stan Herring, a clinical professor at the University of Washington in Rehabilitation Medicine, Orthopaedics, Sports Medicine and Neorological Surgery. He is also co-medical director of the Seattle Sports Concussion Program and a team physician for the Seahawks and Mariners.
Since meeting the family four years ago, Herring has worked tirelessly not only to aid Zack's recovery, but to spread the message of concussion awareness.
"He's an amazing kid," Herring said of Zack Lystedt. "He's changed all of our lives; Zack has remained a big part of our family."
Now, five years after being injured and months after walking across the stage to accept his high school diploma, Zack is finally beginning to get back to normal. He is set to begin taking a class at Bellevue College in the fall.
In 2009, as a result of Zack's saga, Washington became the first state to adopt head injury and concussion legislation by passing Engrossed House Bill 1824, known since its signing as the Lystedt Law.
The legislation, which is intended to be educational rather than punitive, states in part, "Athletes cannot return to practice or a game until evaluated by a licensed physician trained in the diagnosis and management of concussions and given written medical authorization."
In addition, the law stipulates that only one of five certified professionals (medical doctor, doctor of osteopathy, advanced registered nurse practitioner, physicians assistant and licensed certified athletic trainers) may offer a return-to-play authorization for an athlete under the age of 18 that is even suspected of having suffered a concussion. Student-athletes and their parents are also required to sign a concussion information sheet prior to the participation in school sponsored athletics.
Since the Lystedt Law was adopted by Washington, 28 other states and the District of Columbia have introduced legislation to prevent athletes from returning to competition before deemed safe by a medical professional. While the law creates a set of standards for returning to play after a suspected concussion, surrounding issues such as baseline testing are still up for debate.