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

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Likewise, in Terry Merkel's estimation, it would have been pointless to drive his son Justin to the doctor's office after the 11-year-old sustained a minor concussion three years ago.

During a youth football game in Gilbert, Justin broke off a long run down the middle of the field and toward the goal line. But before he was able to score, he was tackled low and "his head bounced off the ground like a basketball," says Terry, who was coaching from the sidelines that day.

"My brain was vibrating in my head," remembers Justin, who is now 14 years old. "I didn't know what was going on. I was looking at my coach and he was looking at me like I was crazy."

An on-site athletic trainer determined that Justin didn't need to seek further care. Three days later, he was back at practice and continued the season as normal. He and his dad say that Justin has been fine ever since. Four years ago, Landers told a varsity football player who had suffered a staggering three concussions in five months to go to the doctor toward the end of the regular season. The athlete, a key contributor to the Tigers' playoff push, was deemed unfit to continue playing football.

Though Landers realizes that the doctor's decision was probably the right call, he still feels like he screwed up.

"I still feel badly," says Landers through teary eyes, as if the incident had just happened yesterday, "because he'll never get to experience what it's like to play in a Texas [high school football] playoff game."

Former hockey player Kayla Meyer, unable to take the clatter of hallways or lunchrooms at her Minneapolis-area school, gets to her classes five minutes late and leaves late as well. She's missed 75 school days in two years. She eats lunch alone. Once a popular girl, she has been abandoned by all but a couple of her friends, so now Meyer mostly hangs out with her mother's friends.

Her plan had always been to become a vet technician so that she could take over the family business, a dog kennel on their farm. But now Meyer can't take barking. She can't ride horses because the motion makes her sick. And when reading, she now has difficulty processing individual words on a page.

"I have reading glasses now, but I always forget them," says Meyer, "and then I can only stand reading without my glasses for a couple of minutes, before the pain gets too bad."

The Meyers don't have health insurance. Sending Kayla to specialists is leaching the family's finances. Though they try to keep it from her, she's noticed that the ATV and the horse trailer have gone missing, pawned by her parents for cash. Next will be the horses, and one day maybe the farm itself.

There's no end in sight for Kayla's condition. "The physical therapists used to give us targets," says Mandy Meyer. "'It will be two weeks, two weeks.' Now they don't give her targets, because she's missed so many of them."

Though Mandy declares that her daughter's concussion was "handled horribly inappropriately," she won't consider a lawsuit. "There are just too many people who messed up," she says, including herself in that assessment.

In April, Kayla Meyer testified in front of the Minnesota Senate Education Committee in favor of a concussion bill, which would educate coaches and trainers and restrict when students can return to play. The lights and noise of the Capitol in St. Paul were a gauntlet for Meyer, but the bill passed.

She doesn't blame anybody for her condition. "My coaches are awesome," she says. "They just weren't informed enough."

As parents, coaches, and athletes try to find the proper balance between athletic participation and long-term health, Natasha Helmick, who's studying at Texas State University to be an athletic trainer, still is experiencing depression and focus issues.

Helmick says she still hasn't moved past the disappointment of that day when Texas State decided to pull her athletic scholarship. "My doctor told me that I should never play a contact sport again in my life. He said, 'Don't even go out and shoot with friends. That's how endangered your head is.'"

Natasha's brother Zachary plays club select soccer and has "moved up the soccer ladder faster than Natasha did," says their mother, Micky. This summer, Zachary participated in the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program. If he keeps performing well, he could be handpicked from a pool of athletes to represent the country in national and international competition.

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By Steve Jansen and Gus Garcia-Roberts