Westchester Tackles Concussions

Our County Mental Health Commissioner and a White Plains football coach weigh in on the pressing issue

Another fall sports season is upon us, but for many parents, so are concussion worries. This fear is not unfounded, as football has been increasingly, concretely linked to the devastating neurodegenerative disease CTE. Even the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety recently acknowledged a causal relationship between CTE and pro football. In order to address these anxieties, Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino and County Mental Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Herceg assembled the Westchester Concussion Task Force, which published a 10 “Best Practices” summary in January. Herceg implores coaches, administrators, parents, and the general public to consult the guideline, noting that it’s the first football season during which a locally conceived resource like this has been available.

“Concussions are more common at the high school level, but they are often more severe at the youth level because the kids are less coordinated,” cautions Herceg. “Once the speed of play starts to increase around ages 12-17, kids join travel leagues and the intensity is higher, but the programs aren’t up to speed on how to deal with concussions.”

Essentially, Herceg’s outline encourages collaboration and communication between experts and trained professionals (everyone from school nurses, physicians, teachers, coaches, trainers, and parents should be involved) to ensure that concussions are diagnosed and treated correctly. There are no simple answers, and the combined efforts of all parties leads to more comprehensive assessment and treatment.

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“The brain is complex, and no two concussions are alike,” says Herceg. “Pre-existing psychiatric conditions like ADD can make the outcome even more complex, and every concussion is sustained differently.”

Not to mention that a constant flow of new research has been shifting the medical consensus. Herceg refers to the present time wearily as a  “golden age of concussions”, but he’s also wary of myriad gadgets and refined tests, which he warns are often just moneymaking schemes lacking the latest knowledge. That’s why Herceg recommend consulting with true experts who stay updated on the most recent studies. And while high schools are required to implement concussion protocols, and many in Westchester have been receptive to his best practices, Herceg describes some youth programs as “black holes,” because they are not obligated to have official concussion procedures. Filling that information gap is precisely why Herceg and Astorino developed the task force and best practices. The resources are there—now it’s up to youth leaders to remain proactive and focus on safety.

Perhaps they can look to Mike O’Donnell, the head football coach and athletic director at Stepinac High School in White Plains, who’s also a member of the task force. O’Donnell has been coaching at Stepinac since 1980, and as concussion awareness has increased, so has the safety of his program. Each year, he sends a member of his coaching staff to a safety school sponsored by USA Football and the NFL. And now, Stepinac trainers have final say on injured players, not coaches. Once a doctor clears an injured player, Stepinac’s nurse and trainer must clear them as well, which is followed by an issue-free six-day recovery process before returning to the field or classroom.

“When an injury does occur, the proper protocol needs to go into effect,” O’Donnell affirms. “That matters more than wins and losses.”

Herceg himself has a 12-year old daughter who plays ice hockey, and after she sustained a concussion last season, Herceg was careful, letting his her rest before easing her back into a normal routine. At the time, there was new research indicating that the brain takes 30 days to heal after an injury, so Herceg waited 32 days before letting her resume all activities.

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“Be vigilant,” Herceg ultimately advises. “You have to really be on top of your child if you suspect an injury, looking for signs and symptoms. Find the right experts and make sure everyone stays updated. Don’t rush the recovery and make sure you let the brain heal on its own, and slowly start to ease your child back into normal life. There needs to be a balance—not too extreme, not too cautious.”  


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