Thirteen-year-old Zackery Lystedt hit his head on a hard tackle. He stayed on the ground clutching his helmet. He missed only three plays before reentering a Tahoma Middle School football game in 2006. He had suffered a concussion, but was allowed to continue playing.
Another hit changed his life forever.
Lystedt collapsed on the field. Surgery saved his life, but he remained in a coma for three months. He remains partially paralyzed at age 22.
His story spearheaded a national movement and helped lead to statewide regulations to protect youth athletes from concussions. In May 2009, the Zackery Lystedt Law was officially enacted in Washington state.
The law is three-pronged:
▪ Parents and students must be informed about the dangers of concussions.
▪ Athletes suspected of sustaining a concussion must be removed from the game immediately.
▪ An athlete may not return to play until being evaluated and cleared by a licensed health care provider.
In Whatcom County, certain schools have expanded their protocols a bit farther.
If there’s any doubt, sit them out
The main focus of the Lystedt Law was to keep an athlete who sustained a concussion from reentering the game and being put into a potentially life-altering situation. If an athlete shows any sign of concussion, particularly after contact to the head, they must be removed from the field.
“Now, you immediately take the player off,” Bellingham girls’ soccer coach Mark Wright said. “So any time you get a sniff of it at all, you take that kid out and sit them down. They’re probably out for the rest of the game, and a lot of times can’t come back to you until they’ve been pretty well cleared by a doctor that they can play.”
After coming off the field, Wright said the athlete is asked a series of questions.
“As the game is going on, you continue to coach the game, but you also periodically check in and say, ‘How do you feel? Are you seeing stars? Are you feeling nauseated?’” he said.
Squalicum boys’ soccer coach Joe McAuliffe said he would also immediately stop all physical activity if he suspected one of his athletes had sustained a concussion.
“We’d go up to the player and assess the situation,” he said. “Look for any of the symptoms of concussions, and if it looks like there has been a concussion, the player is going to stop participation.”
One of the major responsibilities for schools and coaches, as mandated by the Lystedt Law, is for athletes and parents to be educated about the potential dangers of concussions in sports.
A research study conducted by the Brain Injury Awareness of Washington looked at whether adults were better informed in the years following the Lystedt Law’s enactment.
The survey was distributed to adults associated with the Washington Youth Soccer association, according to the report, and nearly 400 adults responded to the survey.
Close to 90 percent of respondents could identify that the Lystedt Law required a licensed medical official to clear any student athlete before they could return to the field after a head injury. Almost 90 percent also realized that a parent could not clear their student to return to the field.
The numbers start to drop off with more specific questions.
Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed did not know if their team tracked concussion data among its players. Sixty percent could not point to a specific individual with their team associated with clearing players for a return to the field.
Sixty percent of the 270 surveyed coaches said they provided parents with no additional information beyond the legally required forms. A third of those coaches also said they did not provide their athletes with any additional information.
However, Bellingham coach mark Wright believes parents are tuned in much more than in the past.
“I think they are about a zillion times more concerned than they were before,” he said. “Because (if) anybody hits their head at all now? Concussion, they think. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but everyone has a concussion now.”
That worry may come at a price to youth sports.
Mount Baker football coach Ron Lepper is seeing more-educated parents not letting their children play football — a disheartening observation for the longtime football player, coach and fan.
“Football is such an ingrained sport in our society, so who’s going to play football?” Lepper questioned. “The kids that are a little lower socio-economically and stuff, because that’s a chance to get out there and get the opportunity to do something.”
Lepper knows plenty about football and the dangers of it and says he is glad his kids played and hopes his grandchildren play as well.
It’s important for parents to know the risks, Lepper said, but just as important they know accurate facts and not just the scares.
“I’m not downplaying it one bit. I understand we’re getting more information, but you’re at home and you lift your head up and hit a cabinet, it’s going to hurt like hell and you’re going to get a headache; do you have a concussion?” Lepper said. “I don’t think there’s anything you can say that’s going to prevent it. It’s like the warning sticker on a helmet. It scares the hell out of kids when they read it. I say we try to do our best.”
WIAA concussion guidelines
In response to the Lystedt law in 2009, the Washington Interscholastic Activities adopted a set of policies for the management of concussion and head injury in youth sports. A quick look at what is expected for schools, coaches, parents/guardians, athletes and health care providers in Washington state high school and middle school athletics:
▪ Must adopt policies for the management of concussion and head injuries in youth sports.
▪ Ensure that all coaches (paid or volunteer) are educated in the nature and risk of concussion or head injury prior to the first practice. The education will include signs and symptoms of concussions and brain injury and is available free of charge at the sport-specific WIAA online rules clinics.
▪ Require all athletes and parents/guardians to annually sign and return an information sheet on the nature and risk of concussions and head injury.
▪ Ensure that any athlete showing signs or symptoms of concussion or brain injury be removed for participation immediately and not be allowed to return until they have written clearance from a licensed health care provided trained in the evaluation and management of concussions and brain injury.
▪ Require all non-profit youth sports groups utilizing school facilities to provide a statement of compliance with the policies for the management of concussions and head injury before the organization’s first competition or practice.
▪ Shall be educated about the nature and risk of concussion and head injury, including education to the signs and symptoms and the dangers of continuing to play after a concussion or head injury.
▪ Shall educate their athletes on the signs and symptoms of concussions and encourage athletes to notify the coach if a teammate exhibits those signs or symptoms.
▪ Immediately remove from participation or competition any athlete who is suspected to have suffered a concussion or head injury.
▪ Must not allow athletes removed from competition for a suspected concussion or head injury to return to practice or competition until the athlete receives written clearance from a licensed health care provider.
▪ Shall annually review, sign and return to the school a concussion and head injury information sheet prior to the athlete’s initial practice or competition.
▪ Shall annually review, sign and return to the school a concussion and head injury information sheet prior to initial practice or competition.
Health care providers
Licenses health care providers who clear an athlete to return to practice or competiton following a suspected concussion or head injury:
▪ Medical doctors
▪ Doctors of osteopathy
▪ Advanced registered nurse practitioners
▪ Physicans assistants
▪ Licensed certified athletic trainers.