About a decade ago, an airbag came between my head and the windshield on a snowy Christmas Eve on my way to a must-see exhibit at Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. "Airbag face in three," I heard the ER nurse shout to the attending.
After being whisked off to the city's finest plastic surgeon for basic wound care, I thought I got off easy, until the headache and chronic testy mood set in. Concentration diminished, making my already minuscule attention span smaller, and I was unable to tolerate noisy restaurants, most movies and guitar-playing kids.
The diagnosis, — post concussion syndrome — was a fancy way of saying my brain bashed up against the side of my skull and had bruised.
At the time, doctors had little to offer me other than meds for the bad mood. Eventually, the symptoms subsided and I went back to just my usual ditziness. The experience made me wonder why we don't know and understand more about concussions, especially in this land of Friday Night Lights, where we send our young men to crash into each other at full speed in pursuit of a pointy brown ball.
Recently, when concussions in football players came under scrutiny, my curiosity was piqued again. Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker essay, Offensive Play: How different are dogfighting and football?, tells the story in painstaking detail. Concussions have finally came out of the closet.
Repeated brain trauma is even more serious. After a study of 20 athletes' brains, scientists noticed changes resembling Alzheimer's disease. When Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry died after falling off the back of a moving pickup truck after taking off after his girlfriend in a domestic-violence-incident rage, an autopsy revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a form of degenerative brain damage linked to multiple blows to the head.
This shocking news brought concussions and athletes further into the spotlight.
So it's no surprise that I am excited to see the Methodist Neurological Institute tackle this problem head on through the formation of its new Concussion Center, headed up by Dr. Howard Derman. After being appointed the Houston Texans' concussion expert, Derman was ready to take concussion awareness and treatment to the next level through a special partnership with the Houston Texans and Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who suffered a concussion in 2007.
The Concussion Center is the first of its kind in Houston.
The mission of the center is threefold — evaluation, education and research. The center offers ImPACT testing, which stands for Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, to student athletes and patients. The test consists of a series of questions, providing a baseline of an athlete's cognitive function before the season, which helps doctors figure out the extent of any head injury that happens later.
Concussions are tricky things. Symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness, memory loss, balance issues and irritability. I had the first one, and the last one big time, just ask the Wozny clan.
"Imagine a rubber ball bouncing against a cardboard box; Your brain is the ball and the skull is the box," Derman says. "You shake the brain around and it hits the box in various places, causing different symptoms. Personality is in front, balance on the side. It's not brain damage, more of a bruise to the brain."
Ether way, your noggin smashing into your skull is not a good idea, and we should take concussions very seriously. Each year, Americans suffer approximately 3.8 millions concussions due to sports or other head trauma. That's a whole lot of brain bashing.
The good news is that, in most cases, the brain does recover. "Cognition comes back," Derman says. "We give patients mental exercises to help during that time." Recovery time varies, from as soon as a few weeks to several months. Diagnosis is largely clinical, although functional MRIs are used in some cases.
Today, the NFL is fully on board with this situation. Yet Derman remains concerned with the safety of high school football, where there is much-less regulation and losing teams can put prestigious coaching jobs on the line.
The center is actively working with the area's high school football players with a team of trainers ready to see any injured athlete within 24 hours. A handy wallet card streamlines the process. Better equipment plays a role but offers limited protection.
"You can have the best helmet in the world, with 20 layers of cushion, and that would not prevent your brain from hitting your skull," Derman says. "It can help cushion the blow, but it's naive to think better helmets can solve the problem."
Along with education, research is also a top priority. "We need to understand why some players develop permanent problems and others don't," Derman says.
Concussions don't just happen to football players. Derman and his team treat regular people, weekend athletes, bikers, lacrosse players — anyone who has received a blow to the head.
Look at me, I was just on my way to an art museum. To this day, my son likes to remind me: "Art is dangerous and can hurt your head."