Alyssa Latham still remembers that tasty bowl of cereal like it was yesterday.
Lucky Charms, floating in a pool of sweet milk. Scrumptious.
“It was the best bowl of cereal I had ever tasted,” Latham recalls of that winter morning during her sophomore year at Walla Walla High School. “Such a treat.”
Trouble was, not a single spoonful found its way to her mouth. One after another, they missed their mark and dribbled down her chin.
“My mom came in, and the whole thing was down my throat, all down my front,” Latham remembers. “And I didn’t feel a thing, not the cold milk on my face, nothing. It sounds kind of funny now, but at the time, it was scary.”
Latham was recovering from a concussion, and numbness was just one of the symptoms.
“I remember being unstable and wobbly on my feet,” Latham says. “And I had no sensation of feelings. I could grab something sharp, and I wouldn’t know it.”
Latham, who graduated from high school in 2000, was a three-sport star for the Blue Devils, and she suffered three concussions during her prep athletic career, and two others since. The first one occurred on the basketball court, right around Christmas during her sophomore year.
“I was dribbling the ball, breaking a press, and I probably should have passed it,” Latham recalls. “There were two girls on me, at the time. One pushed me, and the other tripped me. And I hung on to the ball instead of catching myself.
“It didn’t knock me out, but on the video you could hear my head hit the floor. I didn’t remember much after that, although I know that I did go to the hospital and that I was out of basketball for three to six weeks.”
Concussions are relatively common in competitive athletics. Take to the court or the field, and chances are good you’re going to get your bell rung sooner or later.
Despite state-of-the-art protective gear, football players are among the most likely to suffer head injuries. But athletes in virtually every sport run the risk of suffering a concussion.
Professional baseball and hockey players have seen their careers end in recent years, because of concussions. Cyclists wear head gear for a good reason. And it’s been determined that heading the ball in soccer can lead to concussion-like symptoms.
Boxing is very likely the most violent and dangerous sport of them all. Muhammad Ali, with his vacant eyes and slurred speech, is the poster child for the long-term repercussions of years of head-pounding inside the ropes.
There is greater awareness of concussion injuries today than ever before. Because of that awareness — not to mention state safety laws that have been passed in recent years — high schools and colleges have implemented testing programs that enable trainers and coaches to evaluate and monitor athletes’ cognitive skills after they have suffered a head injury.
Here, in Washington, the most common test is the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Test (ImPACT). At Wa-Hi and DeSales High School, for example, all athletes, and that includes cheerleaders and dance-team members, are required to take the test once every two years before entering into competition.
The test measures verbal and visual memory, processing speed, and reaction time. Once a baseline has been established, athletes who suffer head injuries are required to retake the test and must achieve a comparable baseline score before they are allowed to return to the court or field.
“When a kid suffers a head injury, they come out of the game, and they don’t go back until the trainer or a medical person evaluates them,” Wa-Hi Athletic Director Don Wilkins says. “And our coaches have training in that area as well.
“We’ve had a considerable number of those injuries — head injuries where we used to say someone got dinged,” Wilkins adds. “And it isn’t just football. We’ve had them in volleyball and in cheerleading. We’ve had them in swimming, where kids get in the same lane and run into each other. And we consider everything a possible concussion and look at it from that standpoint.
“If we are going to err, we’re going to err on the side of being too safe.”
Chris Eastep has been Wa-Hi’s full-time trainer since 2001. In addition to administering the ImPACT, his responsibilities include attending every varsity football game (home and away), as many home events as possible in other sports and as many practices as possible.
“A lot depends on what we see as the highest-risk area,” Eastep says. “If football is having a no-pads practice, for instance, I will go to the soccer game, instead. Usually, Don Wilkins directs me where to be.”
But Wa-Hi is a huge Class 4A high school, and Eastep admits that his is more than a one-man job.
DeSales, a much smaller Class 2B school, has also hired a full-time trainer, Anna Taylor, the daughter of Tim Conley, who filled that role at DeSales for many years on a volunteer basis. Conley was the director of outpatient rehabilitation at St. Mary Medical Center and is now employed by the hospital as a physical therapist.
“I was right on my dad’s coattails since I was a little kid, both at St. Mary’s and at DeSales,” Taylor says. “I helped him out, as a student. I started [college] on a nursing path, but knee injuries in high school and college led me into athletic training.”
Taylor, who also teaches physical education classes at Assumption School, is DeSales’ first on-staff trainer.
“When the Lystedt law came out, I was very uncomfortable with anything other than having someone on staff,” DeSales Athletic Director Greg Fazzari said, referencing the Zackery Lystedt Law that went into effect in May of 2009. The safety law sets guidelines and establishes mandatory requirements for anyone suffering a head injury during a high school athletic event.
Washington was the first state in the nation to enact such a law. Since then, 42 additional states have followed suit.
Like Eastep, Taylor attends all Irish football games, home and away, and home events in all other sports. And she’s on call for all practices.
“I attend practices a minimum of three days a week, checking in with each team,” Taylor says. “Some days I’ll have kids waiting for me in the training room, other days I just check with the coaches. And I travel as needed, especially during tournament play where a team is gone for a couple of days at a time.”
Sideline assessment is a big part of the job, she says.
“You ask a series of questions, where you make the athlete think,” Taylor says. “It can take time, sometimes 15 to 20 minutes, checking their immediate and delayed memory. Not every time you get hit in the head or fall hard does it result in a concussion. If they come off the field, are doing fine and know what is going on, if their memory is fine when you ask them questions, they can continue to play.
“But the state of Washington makes it very clear: If there is any suspicion of a concussion, there is no return to play.”
Wa-Hi and DeSales have both experienced the heartbreak of fatal head-injuries.
Wa-Hi senior offensive lineman Chuck Anderson suffered a head injury in a football game against Pendleton in the fall of 1971, fell into a coma and subsequently died. In 2001, 14-year-old John Quaresma sustained a similar injury in a freshman football game and died the following day.
“I was involved in both of those,” Wilkins recalls. “I was an assistant football coach the night Chuck was hit before the ball had been snapped, and I was the athletic director when John suffered his injury.
“Football is a collision sport, there’s no getting around it. But you look at the number of people injured on bikes and skateboards, and, per capita, it could be higher than football. At least, in football, we have the best protective equipment money can buy.”
More recently at DeSales, in the spring of 2008, Irish senior pole vaulter Ryan Moberg fell awkwardly during a practice vault in the school gymnasium. Moberg landed on the back of his head, slipped into a coma and died 45 hours later at Providence St. Mary Medical Center.
Concussion symptoms aren’t always the same, which Latham found out when she suffered her second concussion on the softball field during the spring of her junior year at Wa-Hi. She was playing second base at the time and, as the cutoff, ducked to avoid an outfield throw to the second-base bag. But the throw was low and struck her on the side of the head.
“I fell over, and I remember looking up and the sky was going in circles, around and around very fast,” Latham remembers. “It took a few minutes to stop, but my dad was there and he took me to the hospital.
“I was completely normal after four weeks, and there was no similarity between the first and second concussion. I wasn’t wobbly, mostly just nausea, which I didn’t have with the first one.”
But Latham would discover that concussion injuries can be accumulative in terms of severity.
To her own surprise, she made it through a three-sport collegiate career — two years at Walla Walla Community College and two at College of Idaho, where she was a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics All-American soccer player — without suffering another concussion. But shortly after graduating from C of I, Latham took a spill while snowboarding at Mount Hood, cracked her face on a patch of ice and sustained concussion No. 3.
“I knew what it was, but the symptoms weren’t very bad,” she recalls. “I just took myself out of things for a few weeks, rested and didn’t exercise. I just waited until I felt normal again.”
Concussion No. 4 happened in 2009 after Latham had returned to Walla Walla, obtained her master’s degree at Walla Walla University and had gone to work for the YMCA.
“I was playing basketball at the Y when it happened, and I knew right away what it was,” she says. “The person guarding me was pushed from behind; his hand and knuckles went into my face and broke my nose.
“I got my nose fixed, but I didn’t go to a doctor for my concussion. There was no nausea, but I was spacey and dizzy. Still, I just put it behind me, which, looking back, I feel kind of stupid.”
That’s because her fifth concussion — and her last, she hopes — was, by far, the most serious. And, for her, the most embarrassing.
“It was last Easter ,” she remembers. “We were having an adult Easter-egg hunt with my sister, brother-in-law and husband at my parents’ home. My dad hid the eggs, and I was racing my husband (Pat McConn) to one of the eggs.”
Latham circled one tree, she said, and sprinted, head down, directly into another.
“It was a huge tree, and it did not have a smooth truck,” Latham says. “I hit the top of my head, kind of a new spot, and it was so loud in my head. And it bounced me back, and I fell on my buns.
“I felt so stupid. I got up and said, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ I was so embarrassed. But the next day I went to work and right away had a meeting with my boss, up in my office at the YMCA. I was just kind of staring, and a co-worker came in and said, ‘You must have had a crazy Easter,’ thinking I was hung over.
“That’s when I realized I had a concussion.”
Latham went home and immediately made an appointment with her doctor. Six long months passed before she was able to return to her job.
“I was nauseous, dizzy and completely out of it,” she remembers. “I had no appetite, which is never normal for me, and I was given a series of medications to help with brain chemistry and focus.”
Also, for the first time, Latham was given the ImPACT. Since she had never taken the test before, her scores were compared to everyone else who had ever taken the test. And the results were anything but positive.
“My scores were low — so low that it really scared me,” she remembers. “When you score 3 percent out of 100, that’s not good.”
Latham was advised to stay off the telephone. She was instructed to avoid watching movies with complicated plots. And she was told to lie in the dark for periods of time.
“I was letting my brain rest, with not a lot of input,” she says.
At the same time, she was warned against sleeping too much.
“I had to set an alarm, or I could have slept all day, and that’s not me,” she says. “I would also forget to eat, and family members were constantly checking up on me.”
Most disturbing of all, she wasn’t even inclined to spend time with her 2-year-old daughter, Mazy.
“Here I am, at home with my daughter, and I can’t really do much with her,” Latham says. “Some days I would want her, but by the end of the day I was completely whipped, and I was in bed as soon as my husband came home. Most of the time, my husband, my mom and dad, and my sis watched my daughter.
“With concussions, you find that you can be short and mean and get angry quickly. I don’t know how bad I was. I tried not to be.”
Gradually, she came out of it. And, in September, she was able to return to her job at the YMCA.
“There were headaches after six months, and some dizziness,” she says. “But cognitively, everything seemed to be pretty good.”
Exercise was also prescribed — light weights and hiking — and that helped alleviate the headaches, she said. Now, she’s back on the basketball court, although she is finally learning to play it safe.
“Everyone is very nice in noon ball,” she says. “People let me know when they are setting a screen, I don’t go into the key anymore, and I don’t rebound. I don’t play like I would have normally played.”
She has also given up softball, soccer and snowboarding, and she sold her motor scooter.
“I try to avoid things that put you in certain situations,” she says. “Otherwise, I’m leading a pretty normal life.”