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HEALTH CONNECTION

Doctors lobby for safer sports

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun


Teenager Ted Stewart was just six years old when he started to play hockey. He became more and more passionate about the sport over the next decade. But like many other young players, Tim played in a league where bodychecking was permissible -- and that almost cost him his memory, his cognitive ability and perhaps even his life.
At 19, avid hockey player Ted Stewart has recovered from a series of concussion-causing bodychecks that prevented him from playing.


That's because Ted suffered from a series of concussions which were largely ignored by his coaches, his doctors and even his family. So-called "bellringers" are seen as part of the rites of passage for young hockey players. When the resulting dizziness and headaches passed within weeks, his doctors allowed him to go back into the rink.

"No one ever told us that the more concussions you get, the more dangerous it is," Ted's mother Elizabeth explains. "And so after two concussions we let him play again. Then in January 2002, Ted got a doozie.

It was an accidental bodycheck. After an elbow to his chin he fell and his head hit the ice. He was out of it. He was dizzy and couldn't play."

Twenty-four hours later, the more severe symptoms became apparent. Ted couldn't tolerate noise and crowds. He was dizzy and disoriented. He couldn't go back to school. And so for seven months, while his friends were completing Grade 12, Ted was at home or in the hospital, learning first-hand what pain, exhaustion and illness are all about.

Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael's Hospital, believes that it's the physicians duty to keep people healthy -- and part of that job involves warning them about the dangers of bodychecking in hockey. So he recently published an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal about it.

In the article called "Bodychecking and concussions in ice hockey: Should our youth pay the price?", Dr Cusimano writes that 86% of all injuries among nine to 15 year old players are caused by bodychecking. Head injuries -- which are most often concussions -- make up 10% to 12% of minor hockey league injuries in players between the ages of 9 and 17.

Cusimano explains that while a first mild concussion may not seem serious, each additional brain injury compounds the danger. For instance, high school athletes with a history of three or more concussions are nine times more likely (than those with no brain injuries) to have changes in their mental status and neurological motor functions.

Until now many doctors and other health-care workers have played down this type of injury, allowing the patient to return to the ice not long after recovering from the concussion. This may be a serious mistake, according to John Kumpf, executive director of the Ontario Brain Injury Association.

"Brain injury is the number one disabler and killer of Canadians under the age of 45," he says. "A concussion is a mild brain injury, but the danger is when there is a push to get the child back in the activity (hockey) and people say 'He's fine...let him be a man!' That's when it becomes dangerous and that's when you can end up with a bad case of death."

At 19, Ted Stewart has fully recovered and he will be going to university this year. He's also back playing hockey...but this time he plays in a much safer, non-contact league where bodychecking is banned. Those with brain injuries are vulnerable to depression and his doctors decided that completely denying Ted the sport he loved was too harsh.

Still, Elizabeth will always be nervous.

"As much as I love to see my son play in a sport he loves, I am comfortable and relaxed only when his shift takes their turn on the bench," she says.

(Susan Poizner (susan.poizner@sympatico.ca) is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)



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