Student athletes suffer the stings of concussions while lawmakers fail to help

Natasha Helmick goes up for a header during a Dallas soccer match and gets speared in the left temple by an opponent. The 14-year-old, a talented center midfielder playing in the choice Lake Highlands Girls Classic League, crumples to the ground.

She can't see anything out of her left eye. Her coach asks if she's OK. Natasha lies and says she's good to go, and the coach puts her back into the lineup. She plays the remainder of the game, even though one eye sees darkness, while floaters and sparkly objects dance in front of the other.

She plays again later that day, without full eyesight. Her vision will eventually return, but five years and four concussions later, Natasha Helmick is unable to recall much of her childhood.

Speaking to her, you wouldn't know that Natasha, who was forced to give up an athletic scholarship to Texas State University-San Marcos, is a brain-damaged 19-year-old. "But academically," says her mother, Micky Helmick, "everything is three times harder."

While Natasha racked up more concussions, David Goldstein, a "little freshman" by his own estimation, shouldn't have even been on the soccer pitch during the January 2010 district finals for Ransom Everglades when the Miami prep school played against longtime rival Gulliver. But after an older kid was injured, David subbed in. He was playing one of the best games of his life when he collided head-to-head with an opponent he describes as "a monster from Gulliver."

Game tape shows David holding his head and swaying like a drunk. But there was no way he was going to take himself out of this match, and his coach didn't either.

It was — though David didn't understand the medical ramifications at the time — his third concussion in four years. After the game, he felt nauseated and cowed by light, stumbling to his dad's car and collapsing.

For months, the "blaring" headache persisted. "It's always there," he describes. "It's so intense, it takes over your life." Previously a devoted student, David took refuge in the school nurse's office three hours a day, closing his eyes to the painful light. He became agitated and impatient with friends. Every specialist his parents took him to was perplexed by his condition.

Across the country, people have awakened to the sometimes irreversible damage of concussions, especially in high-impact professional sports. With much of the attention focused on the National Football and National Hockey leagues, Village Voice Media — following a months-long, nationwide investigation into the consequences of concussion on youth athletes, who are larger and more aggressive than in past generations, and often play year-round — has found the following:

• The effect of a concussion on kids can be much more devastating than on adults. Doctors say that until a person is in his early to mid-20s, his brain is not fully developed and can't take the same level of trauma as an adult brain can.

• Postmortem analysis, the only surefire way to measure concussions' devastating effects, shows that repeated blows to the head might be linked with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS, and a number of other fatal diseases.

• An athlete who doesn't exhibit outward signs of a concussion (headaches, dizziness, vomiting, temporary amnesia) can still experience changes in brain activity similar to those in a player who has been clinically diagnosed with a concussion.

• Thus far in 2011, 20 state governments and the District of Columbia have signed concussion legislation that prohibits an athlete from returning to play until cleared by a licensed physician. To date, 28 states (as well as the city of Chicago) have concussion laws in place. This does not include Florida; here, legislators struck down a proposed bill that could have helped protect youth athletes.

• The ImPACT test, widely regarded as the go-to neurological exam to measure concussive blows, doesn't always accurately gauge a player's readiness to return to action. And you can cheat on it.

Meanwhile, as attorneys debate how the new concussion laws will play out, young people such as Natasha Helmick, whose memory struggles sometimes resemble those of an elderly person, continue to battle a condition that puts parents who want the best for their children in an interesting position: Would they push to have them be standouts in athletics — sometimes the key to a better future — if they realized that in some cases their kids can be harmed for life by their participation in elite sports?

For Ali Champness, it was a freak ball kicked into her face by her own goalie in practice that turned her life upside down. The 14-year-old freshman, who'd already made junior varsity at Garces Memorial, a Catholic high school in Bakersfield, California, told her parents the sting went away after a little while.

Two days later, though, on the way to a game, recalls her mother, Kim Champness, Ali complained of a headache and dizziness.

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Gus Garcia-Roberts
Steve Jansen
Contact: Steve Jansen