More than a 'ding'

School officials statewide are tackling the problem of concussions and traumatic brain injuries before a bump on the head ends an athlete's life.

After N.C. Gov. Beverly Perdue signed the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act this summer, school systems statewide are implementing policies mandated by the new law. Named in honor of high school football players Matthew Gfeller and Jaquan Waller who died after traumatic brain injuries in 2008, the measure aims to improve concussion education for school leaders, coaches, athletes and parents. It also requires creation of emergency response plans in the event of a traumatic brain injury on an athletic playing field, said Catawba County Schools Board Attorney Crystal Davis.

"It is a movement to protect students who may have suffered from traumatic brain injuries and to help prevent and minimize the impact of brain injury on students," she told Catawba County Schools Board of Education members during a meeting Monday. " This requires schools to develop plans and procedures and engage in certain behaviors to help prevent concussions in sports-related injuries and also create a venue specific plan for emergencies at each school.

As the school system oversees five high schools with football programs, as well as five middle schools with contact sports, board members voiced concerns over meeting with those expectations.

"This is going to be a bear," said CCS Board member Sherry Butler. "There is going to be no easy way to do this."

Still, there is little doubt that this type of measure is needed. After one week of high school football, at least three concussions occurred between the three high schools for which Caatawba Valley Medical Center's sports medicine department provides athletic trainers, accordind to CVMC Director of Fitness and Sports Medicine Marcus Osborne, LAT, ATC, CSCS. CVMC provides athletic trainers for Maiden and Bandys high schools, as well as Newton-Conover High School.

"We need to be aware of (concussions and traumatic brain injuries) and take steps to make sure everybody — the parents, the coaches and the athletes themselves — can be aware so they can help the athletic trainers take care of the athletes."

The new law requires that "each year all coaches, school nurses, athletic directors, first responders, volunteers, student athletes and parents of student athletes," be provided with a concussion and head injury information sheet, Davis said.

Those sheets, approved by the State Board, include information about concussion symptoms and outlying signs of a traumatic brain injury. Athletes and parents will be required to complete a questionnaire that seeks information providing details related to previous head injuries.

"They have to complete that sheet even before they try out," Davis said. "The point is to get a specific history of where that child has had a history of head injury."

Next, if an athlete displays any sort of sign or symptom of a head injury being sustained, the policy requires the athlete be removed from play and practice until they receive written clearance from a physician, Davis said.

Finally, the act requires each school principal — or a designee — to develop a site-specific emergency plan for a concussion or head injury situation. The school system superintendent will also have to require each school principal to maintain records of concussions.

"All plans must include delineation of roles, methods of communication, available emergency equipment and a plan for emergency transport, and it must be in writing and be approved by the principal," Davis said. "It must also be distributed, posted, reviewed and rehearsed."

That emergency response plan concerned Butler, particularly in light with the assortment of emergency responders to attend high school athletic events throughout sports seasons.

"My concern is that 'first-responders' encompasses a lot of people," she said. "What plan do we have to make sure first-responders are identified? All schools with local rescue squads and fire departments with bunches of volunteers (at athletic games) — how can we be certain they have been trained?"

Davis said CCS concussion protocol formulation is in the works currently and said she believes the law expects a clear chain of command for emergencies.

"Who is called first, who responds first?" she cited as examples. "They will all have to rehearse it also."

Catawba County Schools officials have reviewed plans already established by Burke County Schools, said Steve Demiter, CCS assistant superintendent of operations.

"It is very specific," he said of the plans, adding they are very extensive and detailed. "It specifies who has to be at certain things, but it ultimately falls back on the principal and the athletic directors to communicate and to complete the training."

Catawba County Schools Board of Education approved a move to begin implementation of the new policy on first reading Monday.