By MIKE SMITH
On Aug. 20, area parents, coaches and players gathered at the Westchester County Center for the Safer Sports Conference on Concussions, a series of talks designed to raise awareness about the causes and effects of sports-related head injuries.
More than 200 people turned out to hear medical experts give their take on brain safety in sports as concussions continue to be a hot-button issue across the athletic landscape.
Five speakers were on hand to discuss various issues concerning brain injuries, from how to properly diagnose a traumatic head injury to setting protocols to ensure that student-athletes who suffer these types of injuries can bounce back, both on the field and in the classroom.
In July, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino launched a concussion task force as part of his Safer Communities initiative. According to Astorino, whose own young children participate in sports, the topic of concussions has risen to the forefront of sports discussions in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are roughly 4 to 5 million sports-related concussions per year, a number that has been increasing at a steady rate.
“One of the things we know how to do as parents, trainers or coaches, if a child is on the field or the court and scrapes a knee, or twists an ankle, we know what to do basically,” Astorino said. “But if a kid is dizzy, we don’t always know what to do. It’s something I have talked about with other parents in the bleachers and that’s one of the reasons this has all come about.”
Astorino’s task force has been charged with developing a model program that will be made available to local high schools to help athletic departments and school staffers address concerns stemming from sports-related concussions, especially with respect to post-injury management. The task force is being headed by Dr. Mark Herceg who serves as the director of neurophysiology at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains as well as the county commissioner of Community Mental Health.
Thursday’s conference, Asto-rino said, was part of the process to arm parents and coaches with more knowledge in the fight against concussions.
“The more we know about sports concussions, the better we can manage the injury if it does happen, and the better we can mitigate any lasting effects,” Astorino said.
Although there is not currently any one program in place for area schools to use, local athletic departments have taken it upon themselves over the last few years to put their own protocols in place for dealing with concussion management.
Dominic Zanot, who coaches football at Harrison High School, said that the response to concussions and the rise of concussion awareness today compared to his own playing days has been “night and day.”
“I graduated from Colgate in 2000 and I can’t remember even one protocol that was in place back then,” he said. “I don’t even know if the word ‘concussion’ ever came up. It was a completely different environment back then.”
Harrison, like several other area school districts in Westchester, implemented the ImPACT concussion evaluation system in 2011. The ImPACT system utilizes baseline testing of student-athlete’s cognitive brain functions to better manage when youngsters who have suffered a brain injury can safely get back on the field. According to Zanot, systems like ImPACT and the continued efforts of Astorino’s task force are invaluable in protecting young athletes.
“There is so much more information out there and we’re just better educated on concussions now,” Zanot said. “It’s not just something you take a two hour class on, though. [Coaches, trainers and parents] need to be continually re-educated.”
Hopefully, said Astorino, the new task force’s findings can be another effective tool to keep our young athletes safe.
“I know [the task force] has been working very hard here in the dog days of summer,” the county executive said. “I look forward to seeing what their report is, and then releasing it to all the school districts.”