Teaching kids to recognize the significance of concussions: An interview with Michael Timothy Duerson

A huge percentage of young athletes admit that they do or would hide symptoms of a concussion to stay in a game. We need to change that attitude to protect the long-term brain health of our kids.

As I was gathering research for my book That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever, I had the great fortune to talk to Michael Timothy Duerson, the brother of Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson. Dave committed suicide after his playing career was over, and researchers discovered he had CTE. His brother now heads up the Dave Duerson Athletic Safety Fund, which educates kids about the dangers of concussions. Here is an excerpt from that interview. I think Duerson has terrific insight on this difficult problem.

Dr. David Geier:     Tell me about your organization and its history. Why did you decided to start it?

Michael Duerson:     My brother David suffered from CTE, and suicide is one of the side effects of CTE. Dave took his life February 17, 2011. After about a year the community there in Muncie, Indiana was requesting of the family to have some form of a life appreciation for Dave because his funeral services were in Chicago. The weather was very icy that weekend, and most of the people from the Muncie area were not able to make it to his funeral. We decided that we would have a celebration dinner for him.

We had displays and DVDs with his favorite music and lots of pictures of him over the years, and my parents and so forth. We accepted to just end there, but we had some people give us some money that night, even though we weren’t seeking any money. We had to decide what to do with this money.

After many discussions, we decided that we would start the Dave Duerson Athletic Safety Fund Incorporated. We did all the legal work and decided that we would put the money to work in the Muncie, Indiana school system. We would provide ImPACT testing for the student-athletes in Muncie, starting at fifth grade and going through twelfth grade. We had enough money available that we could pay for the baseline testing and for post-injury tests. We had enough left over to pay the doctor bills for any student-athlete whose parents didn’t have healthcare insurance.

After the ImPACT testing, we obtained concussion goggles, which are like simulators. They cause the students to experience the symptoms of concussion. We did that for grades K-8, so all students benefit from them. We did that for all the schools in Muncie and then for the Delaware County Schools. Then we decided to reach out to the largest school system in Indiana, which is the Indianapolis Public Schools. We now have over one hundred schools that we have equipment and our protocols in. In Indianapolis, we were asked to put the concussion goggles in the high schools as well.

It became so obvious that it was the right thing to do because about one-third of the student population goes out for one sport each year. We’re telling the kids that if they sustain a body blow or a head blow and they think they have a concussion, to let the coach or the athletic trainer or someone know. Now we have this technology that actually causes the kids to experience these symptoms.

Dr. David Geier:     That’s terrific. What kind of feedback are you getting from the kids after they put on these concussion goggles? Are they really surprised or shocked at what they’re experiencing?

Michael Duerson:     Oh yes, the responses we’ve gotten from the teachers and principals is that it’s just an overall eye-opening experience for them. They enjoy it. We have a curriculum for elementary, middle and high schools so the kids repeat it each year. We pray that through that repetition it will become familiar. Then if that happens to them in some form, they’ll get the help that they need, or at least alert a coach, or a teacher, or nurse, or parent that they need medical treatment. For elementary schools, the curriculum is in the kids’ gym classes, and for middle and high schools, the curriculum is utilized in health classes.

Dr. David Geier:     Has recognition of the importance of concussions by kids changed in the years since your brother played and when you played sports growing up? Is the recognition better, because back then we used to just think, “It’s a concussion, so it’s no big deal?”

Michael Duerson:     I think today there’s more awareness, or there’s more conversation about concussions. Having dealt with the state legislature here in Indiana to attempt to get concussion legislation passed, I can’t say that there’s more recognition, at least not at the legislative level because we’ve been pushing this legislation since 2012. We haven’t really made any good traction on issues like return-to-play criteria, return-to-learn criteria, and the fact that many kids who get concussions end up with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and
problems like that.

Dr. David Geier:     I’m an orthopedic surgeon and not a neurosurgeon or neurologist, but I think that part is becoming much more well known – the emotional changes, the psychological changes that occur in people, not just headaches and maybe difficulty thinking and that kind of thing. I think these behavioral changes have been a real eye opener. I think getting that word out there is critically important.

Michael Duerson:     I know from my experience I was physically able to return to play in about half the time that it took for me to be able to function academically, at the level that I had prior to the injury. As I said, there are return-to-play issues, but there are also return-to-learn issues. No student should be required to take state tests or any kind of testing during the time that the brain is trying to heal. They shouldn’t watch TV or play video games. They often need to be able to sit in the dark. It’s difficult not being able to participate in the classroom, when the teacher turns around to write on the chalkboard and you can’t see their lips or you can’t read their lips. The kids need to be able to rest. They shouldn’t have to start back with a whole load of classes once they’re able to return to school. The school system should be able to deal with those kinds of needs for the injured student-athletes to give them their opportunity to get back to their previous scholastic ability.

Dr. David Geier:     You mentioned education of athletes and parents about concussions and CTE. It seems that recognizing these symptoms of repetitive head injuries and concussions so that you can treat them or pull the kids out of sports before those symptoms happen is one of the keys.

Michael Duerson:     I think there’s a lot to learn, and that’s why we’ve started ImPACT testing at the earliest age, because we want to be able to provide information for those kids as they go through elementary, middle, high school, college, and into the professional ranks, if they do.

Our desire is that this kind of investigation, concussion education and observations, and treatment will become a national conversation, that they might take a look at the techniques that we’re using, the protocols and see if they can be used on a wider basis.

Learn more about the Dave Duerson Athletic Safety Fund by clicking here. Get more terrific information from Michael Timothy Duerson and other brain experts about concussions, CTE and steps football can take to protect the health of the athletes in That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever. Click here to order your copy and receive hundreds of dollars in bonus content absolutely free!

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