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Parents Speak Out on Catastrophic Youth Sports Injuries

By Lisa Esposito
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Dec. 29 (HealthDay News) -- On Aug. 22, 2008, sophomore Matt Gfeller, 15, played in his first varsity high school football game at R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"We were all there," Lisa Gfeller, his mother, recalled. "There's a sort of privilege in that."

She recalled the hit that caused the concussion: "The other boy was a bit bigger, but Matthew wasn't small. He wasn't carrying the football, neither was the other boy. It was a trap block. One tremendous blow -- helmet to helmet. I know the boy did not mean to hurt him," she added.

"Matt sustained a massive brain injury and never woke up," his mother said. He died two days later, on Aug. 24.

She said it was "chaos" on the field that evening, with a delay getting Matt to the hospital caused in part by the need to call a second, critical care ambulance.

Kevin Guskiewicz is a certified athletic trainer and professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. An expert in traumatic brain injury, he and the Gfellers connected not long after Matt's death.

"We don't know if getting Matt to a medical facility 15 or 20 minutes sooner would have saved his life," Guskiewicz said, "but we want to be sure that the next time a case like that occurs, that proper planning is in place to get that child to a medical center in time."

Earlier this month, medical experts and concerned parents appeared on Capitol Hill for a summit on young athletes suffering critical injuries on the playing field. Among them were bereaved parents such as Lisa Gfeller, who have turned personal tragedies into advocacy efforts to prevent others from facing similar losses.

At the summit, hosted by the Youth Sports Safety Alliance, members of the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) called for better prevention, recognition and treatment of emergencies at sporting events and practices, outlined proper management for specific conditions and warned of the risks of mismanagement.

Catastrophic sports injuries killed 50 young athletes in 2010, according to NATA, and every year sports injuries put 30,000 high school athletes in the hospital. At present, only 42 percent of high schools have access to an athletic trainer.

NATA and parents say certified athletic trainers belong at all high school sporting events, to respond in emergencies both by treating the child and acting as the point person at the scene.

They say every school should have an emergency action plan that covers a variety of medical scenarios like concussion, cardiac arrest, heat stroke, asthma attack and blood sickling (in athletes with sickle cell trait) on exertion.

In June, North Carolina passed the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Law, named after Matt and another young man who died. One requirement is that all public high schools and middle schools have an emergency action plan in place, Guskiewicz said, noting that 31 states now have concussion laws.

In 2010, the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center opened its doors on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. Guskiewicz is the co-director.

The Matthew Gfeller Foundation, of which Lisa Gfeller is vice president and treasurer, is involved in many initiatives, including a Wake Forest University event where National Football League players and coaches demonstrated safe blocking and tackling.

At the Washington, D.C. summit, Gfeller met Beth Mallon, co-founder of Advocates for Injured Athletes (AIA), based in San Diego. Her son took a hit during a May 2009 lacrosse game at Santa Fe Christian High School.

"I saw other players were taking a knee, and I realized it was my son, Tommy," Mallon recalled. "He's a really tough kid but it was clear after the first couple of minutes he wasn't getting up."

On an AIA video, Tommy's coach later said it looked like a "mellow hit," and his mother agreed. "It was a freak accident," Mallon said.

Unrealized at the time, Tommy had suffered a tear of the vertebral artery -- a major blood vessel in the back of the neck -- and a clot was forming, which could have led to a stroke. The top disc in his neck was fractured, putting him at risk of death or paralysis if a fragment severed his spinal cord.

"The trainer was on her knees to evaluate him," Mallon said. "Tom wanted to get up -- he hated a delay of game -- and she kept urging him not to move."

Riki Kirchhoff, the certified athletic trainer, picked up a subtle sign of spinal nerve involvement. She, the coach and a physician family friend who happened to be at the game, quickly collaborated.

"The three of them made the decision to call 911," Mallon said. "They made the right decision -- we're extremely lucky."

Tommy had a long, complicated recovery, including clot-busting therapy in intensive care and having his head and shoulders immobilized in a halo apparatus.

Today, "he's good, lucky to be alive and walking," his mother said. Tommy Mallon has since spoken about sports injury at many high schools and he, too, spoke to legislators on Capitol Hill.

"Two things I would tell parents," Gfeller said. "I would not allow my children to play without a certified athletic trainer. And know about the emergency action plan at your child's school. I was really naive. I would have a lot more questions now."

"I know it's very difficult for parents who have lost their children," Mallon said. "That's one reason why we're doing this -- having been given that second chance."

More information

Visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health to learn about sports injuries.

SOURCES: Lisa Gfeller, vice president and treasurer, Matthew Gfeller Foundation, Chapel Hill, N.C.; Beth Mallon, co-founder, Advocates for Injured Athletes, San Diego; Kevin Guskiewicz, Ph.D., certified athletic trainer, Kenan Distinguished Professor and founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center and the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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