Longform

Knocked Out: For Kids, Concussions Can Be Worse Than for Adults

Page 3 of 9

As Blea jumped for the errant pass, a Lincoln High safety cleanly and legally put his shoulder into Blea's midsection. Because he was unable to brace himself, Blea's head whiplashed against San Jose City College Stadium's artificial turf.

"I knew instantly something was wrong," says Dave Blea, Matt's father and former San Jose defensive coordinator, who stood on the sidelines. "I couldn't see his pupils. I could only see the whites of his eyes."

Out of sight of the referees, who signaled play to continue as normal, Matt Blea crawled to the sidelines and lost consciousness. After paramedics tried unsuccessfully to revive him, he was rushed to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center for emergency brain surgery.

"They didn't think he was going to make it," says Dave Blea about his son, who remained comatose for 10 days. "They thought that he had suffered so much brain damage that he probably would have been mentally disabled."

Matt would spend nearly a month in intensive care because of complications from second-impact syndrome. His first concussion, suffered three weeks before on the second-to-last play of a game, was not detected, even after Dave took Matt to the doctor when he told his father that he felt blurry.

"One thing that still hurts is that I always told my kids that if they suffered a concussion, I would keep them out the whole year," says Matt's father. "He passed all of his neurological tests. I guess he was misdiagnosed."

Matt Blea suffered another setback when the surgical incision became infected, requiring another procedure to remove a piece of his skull. For the next 42 days, Blea was forced to wear a helmet and take a chemotherapy-like cocktail of antibiotics.

"I don't remember much at the hospital," says Blea, who was paralyzed on the right side of his body for more than a month. "I remember people holding me up while I tried to take my first step, but my body felt like there was nothing there, like a ghost."

To the surprise of the physicians, Blea eventually recovered. Soon, the high school graduate will attend De Anza College in Cupertino, California, to start a hoped-for career in physical therapy, a profession he never considered until after his injury. His first choice was to become a paramedic, but he's been told that's impossible. That's because his right eye remains half-blind.

Dr. Mark Ashley — co-founder, president, and CEO of the Centre for Neuro Skills, whose clinics in Bakersfield, California, and Irving, Texas, specialize in traumatic brain injury rehabilitation — currently is helping Ali Champness recover from a number of serious health issues spawned by the not-too-dramatic hits from a soccer ball in January.

Champness, based on Ashley's advice, sat out the rest of the soccer season. Two months later, she joined the school's swim team. But three weeks in, she called her mom from a competitive meet in a panic. "Mom, you need to get me to a doctor," Kim Champness remembers her daughter saying.

At Ashley's center, an MRI and CAT scan revealed bleeding in Ali's brain. A cardiologist found that the initial concussion had deregulated Ali's autonomic nervous system. For months, whenever she jogged on the treadmill, her heartbeat soared high enough to trigger cardiac arrest or stroke. She still goes to rehab three hours a day.

One of Ashley's most severe cases, treated at the Centre's Texas facility in 2006, was a 13-year-old football player from the Seattle suburbs named Zackery Lystedt, called "Ray Ray" after his idol, rampaging linebacker Ray Lewis.

In the second quarter of a game, Lystedt fell backward after an unremarkable tackle and hit the back of his head, although the injury escaped the notice of his father in the stands. "I thought he had gotten the wind knocked out of him," recalls Victor Lystedt.

Lystedt played every down for the rest of the game, even forcing a fumble and sprinting 32 yards in the return. But when his dad met him after the game, Lystedt started stumbling and muttering, "My head hurts really bad."

He collapsed onto the field. His left eye suddenly "blew out" and turned an inky black, the result of blood swelling in his skull. And then he convulsed into dozens of strokes. Says Victor, who witnessed the spectacle, helpless and confused, "My boy was dying on a football field." His son would survive, but his serious health problems continue to the present day.

Concussive episodes in youth aren't limited to soccer and football players, says Dr. William Jones, a staff physician at the Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine Institute in Houston. In recent years, Jones has witnessed a staggering increase in concussions, due partly to better detection, in high school cheerleaders and 10-year-old gymnasts.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
By Steve Jansen and Gus Garcia-Roberts