After Ian Ettinger suffered a concussion playing basketball for Wellesley High School his freshman year, he found himself suffering constant headaches and unable to read. He missed two months of school, sitting in darkened rooms listening to Harry Potter books on tape and learning to juggle. He had to drop two classes. He missed his friends and his life.
Ettinger’s body healed, but he hasn’t forgotten. Now a 17-year-old senior, he spent the summer making a short movie that tells how he and several of his friends have struggled with concussions.
In it, they speak of how hard it was to return to class, focus on their work, and get their teachers to understand.
Ettinger remembers feeling adrift in the stacks of assignments his well-meaning teachers sent home — he couldn’t read a word.
On Tuesday, he showed the movie at a forum he organized at Wellesley High to raise awareness that the concussed student athlete isn’t just suffering on the playing field: The concussion throws his or her academic life into limbo, too.
“It’s such an invisible injury,” Ettinger said. “You don’t see a broken leg in a cast, so you don’t know the person’s injured.”
Since Ettinger suffered his concussion in early 2010, the state has implemented a new concussion law that requires schools to provide concussion training for staff, remove athletes with suspected head injuries from play, and maintain compliance records. Wellesley’s Head Injury Prevention and Management Policy, adopted last year, goes beyond state law, outlining academic accommodations to allow time for the concussed student’s mind to heal.
“All the research that’s been coming out in the past three to four years has shown how much the brain needs to rest in order to heal,” said Linda Corridan, Wellesley’s director of nursing. “We have certainly changed our academic accommodations to reflect that new standard. All of this is really starting to come to the surface in the past couple of years.”
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.7 million people per year sustain traumatic brain injuries, including concussions. In Wellesley, between September and December of last year, the district reported 18 suspected or diagnosed concussions during school hours and 58 after school hours, said Corridan.
Most sufferers recover fairly quickly, but others, like Ettinger, can take weeks or months to heal. Returning too soon to the playing field or the classroom can stop recovery in its tracks.
It is only recently that schools have begun to focus on the academic consequences of concussions.
“Those early years, it was about getting your athlete back to playing their sport,” said Debbie Condren, whose 14-year-old daughter Lexie spoke in Ettinger’s video. “They have so much more information now.”
Lexie suffered four concussions between 2008 and 2012 while skiing, on a carnival ride, and playing softball. When she was first injured in 2008, no one noticed that she was suffering from cognitive problems, her mother said. It wasn’t until a year later, after Lexie had suffered a second concussion, that her mother realized Lexie couldn’t complete the simple word puzzles on children’s menus at restaurants and knew something was wrong.
“I don’t think any of us went looking for that,” said Debbie Condren. “I think you focus on the acute symptoms. The academic stuff kind of falls behind.”
But when Lexie suffered her third and fourth concussions in 2011 and last year, her mother said, the district’s response was swift — a tutor was provided at one point, and her teachers were flexible with their homework assignments.
“Over the last two years, there’s been so much more focus . . . they’re definitely doing so much of a better job of addressing the academic component,” said Condren. “But I know that not every school is like that.”
Experts say the issue still needs attention. Forty-three states, plus the District of Columbia, have concussion laws, but while 12 mention Department of Education involvement, none specify classroom academic issues to be addressed, according to Dr. Stuart Glassman, medical director for the Concussion Assessment and Management Program at Concord Hospital, in Concord, N.H., who spoke at Ettinger’s forum.
“We’re talking a brain function problem. You use your brain to think, to read, to write. So how could it not affect you in the classroom? It does,” said Glassman in an interview. “I think the issue is that it hasn’t been the emphasis. The dead kids on the football fields were the emphasis. That’s sports. No one’s dying in the classroom.”
But for concussed students who don’t get academic support, the effect can be calamitous in its own way. Glassman told of patients with failing grades who missed semesters and repeated school years, with college hanging in the balance.
“There is that lag, and I think initially, the first wave of awareness has been helping schools understand the athletic safety perspective,” said Neal McGrath, founder and clinical director of Sports Concussion New England, who has worked with the Wellesley school system and spoke at the forum Tuesday. “The next wave is helping the faculty understand what to do with a student while in recovery.”
Today, Wellesley’s head injury policy allows shortened school days as well as modified testing and homework assignments to help concussed students return gradually to the classroom.
“I use the analogy — if you have a sprained ankle, you know the best way to get over it is to rest it. Only when it gets better do you put your weight on it,” said McGrath. “In academics, it’s sort of like you have a sprained brain.”