The concussion discussion

New insurance program, more awareness bring hope to concussion prevention and treatment
By: Justin Lawson Journal Sports Writer
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Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories in a series dealing with concussions in high school sports.
Kolby Butcher is a boy in a man’s body. At 6-3, 225 pounds his hulking frame doesn’t defies his status as a high school sophomore. It’s a frame that any football coach would love to have gracing a helmet and pads on Friday nights.
But Del Oro High can’t have him — neither can any other football program.
Football would mean that he would have to be able to run, which he can’t always do without getting headaches. It would mean that he would have to be able to concentrate, something he has trouble doing in class. It would also require him to withstand a constant barrage of hits, something he felt more in a one-month period than anyone should.
Butcher suffered three concussions over the course of a month, two from rugby and one from racing dirt bikes last spring. Although he was cleared by several doctors to return to sports, he sat out the entire season and missed a chance to join the varsity team on its run to the CIF Division II state football game in December.
“It’s just real hard trying to be one of those guys knowing that you can’t be at the same time,” Butcher said. “Trying to be what everybody else is and what everybody else wants you to be but when you physically can’t do it and you mentally know you can’t do it then it sets you back.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 1.6 and 3.8 million sports and recreation-related concussions occur in the United States each year. Of those, football has the highest concussion rate at more than 30 percent for athletes ages 15-19.
It’s been nearly a year since Butcher suffered the string of concussions and he estimated that he’s only at 60 percent. He has traded in contact sports for track and field and now receives extra time on tests in class.
Believe it or not, Butcher is lucky. Del Oro last fall became the first school to join Wells Fargo’s Play it Safe Program, which provides group concussion insurance for athletes along with a consortium of doctors throughout the Sacramento Valley to help educate parents, coaches and athletes and manage concussions. The program is headed up by former USC football player Mike Lamb, whose son Logan Lamb was senior on last year’s football team at Del Oro.
It was through Play it Safe that the Butcher family met Dr. Jeffrey Tanji, a sports medicine physician with UC Davis Health System, who is also one of the Sacramento Kings’ team physicians.
“We actually took him to the family pediatrician, we took him to another couple other doctors that were recommended that were neurologists and they basically said he’ll get over it,” said Butcher’s mom, Raewyn Butcher. ”It wasn’t until we had the parent night that I met the other doctor and I had asked some questions about baseline testing.”
Part of Play it Safe includes access to ImPACT Testing, a computer-based neurocognitive baseline test that is utilized by the NFL, college sports programs and a number of high schools around the country. Athletes answer a series a questions and the test transforms their answers into data that can be used to evaluate their condition, both pre- and post-injury.
Butcher was flagged during the initial test, which was taken before last football season.
“He was suffering headaches and wouldn’t run because when he’d run he’d get a constant headache or constant issues,” said Thomas Butcher, Kolby Butcher’s father. ”Knowing the symptoms really helped understand what the real problem was and get him help.”
Before the Wells Fargo program, the ImPACT test was basically worthless. The data couldn’t be deciphered by a coach or athletic trainer and athletes had to go to a neurologist. The closest neurologist in the area that was trained to use the test was in the Bay Area and would charge $500-$1,000 per visit. Now, with Play it Safe, the cost is about $5 per athlete to be in the program and they can be seen by doctors at nearly every area hospital. Kaiser Permanente, Mercy, Sutter Health and UC Davis Health System announced earlier this month that they would join forces to form the Sacramento Valley Concussion Care Consortium.
“The $5 a kid versus a lawsuit for a kid going back and getting hurt or something else, it’s an easy choice in my mind,” Del Oro athletic director Justin Cutts said.
Play it Safe and baseline testing, like ImPACT, haven’t caught on at all area schools yet. Placer High isn’t on either program but is fortunate enough to have an athletic trainer and doctors at games, luxuries many area schools go without.
“The one injury that we never mess with is the head injury,” Placer football coach Joey Montoya said. ”So if there are any symptoms or trauma to the head then we immediately send them to either the trainer or from there to the doctor.”
The state recently passed a law, which went into effect this school year, that any athlete showing signs of concussions must be pulled from the game and receive a physician’s approval before returning to play.
Butcher had been approved to return by several doctors but with lingering symptoms he is obviously not ready to return. For now, he’s working on getting back to 100 percent and hopes to return to the field before his high school years have passed.
“That’s definitely what I want in the end run, to not just heal but to be able to play with my friends again and go big places and get somewhere,” Butcher said. ”That’s kind of my main goal in life is to be somebody and recover myself to show people that you still can do it after everything that goes on.”