“Concussions Crush Careers”: Three heartbreaking stories of careers lost to the brain injury

By Gabby Guerard

Assistant Managing Editor

“A head injury took away our identities.”

One-Mississippi. Eyes open. The cleats of Salem State stared me in the face. My hands clenched rubber turf beads, where my field hockey stick was supposed to be. Two-Mississippi. Immediate confusion. “Where’s my stick?” “Why am I on the ground?” “What the hell just happened?” Three-Mississippi. Throbbing. Pain jolted from my neck, traveling up my spine and into my skull. The sharp whistle sliced through my thoughts to bring me back to reality. Four-Mississippi. Adrenaline rush. A quick glance at my teammate reminded me that I was in the middle of a game. All pain subsided. Five-Mississippi. “I’m fine.” I scrambled back up and got into position to defend the free hit coming my way. I was tripped. I never hit my head.

It was a routine game on October 25. When we left the locker room and stepped onto the field, I noticed I was the featured player to watch, with my photo on the Gameday Guide. I had always known that before I graduated, I wanted to have my picture on the guide. The moment I saw it, I joked that I had officially “made it” and that all my athletic aspirations had been fulfilled.

It wasn’t until after an 8-1 victory when my celebration turned into a nightmare. The pounding inside my skull was back, and louder than ever. Each time my dad spoke, the adrenaline faded a little more, and I found myself struggling to focus on a word he said. I was afraid of the familiarity of this feeling. This can’t be happening again. I only got tripped. I never hit my head.

***

According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA), “The CDC estimates 1.6-3.8 million concussions occur in sports and recreational activities annually.” Given the vast number of athletes and the increased media coverage, the word “concussion” has become frequently used. However, the meaning behind this term often gets lost in conversation, leading to the development of several misconceptions.

No definition fully explains the biological processes behind how getting hit in the head can lead to symptoms such as headaches, nausea, dizziness, fogginess, and sensitivity to both light and noise. Springfield College Coordinator of Athletic Training Services, Barclay Dugger, acknowledged this, explaining that the brain is surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid, so it is able to move inside the skull, when affected by a strong force.

“Momentum is pulling your body forward, then when your body stops, your brain doesn’t always stop inside your skull,” Dugger explained. “The brain is still going to go forward, or it’s going to mildly rotate, causing a twisting force.”

Since the brain’s impact against the interior skull is what triggers the symptoms, the external force can come from a variety of circumstances.

“When you are presenting with concussion symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily have to be from a hit to the head. It could be from a hit to the body,” said Dugger. If a hard force makes contact with any body part, is can be enough to cause the brain to shift inside the skull.

***

Growing up, soccer was all I knew. It wasn’t until an eye-opening gym class when I began to see a new world.

I raced up and down the court, long blue stick in hand, passing and receiving to the boys like it was my job. I zoomed around my classmates left and right, keeping the ball tight on my stick. A surge of adrenaline seized my mind, and I completely forgot about class. The curiosity and excitement of floor hockey stole my attention. I needed more than one day of this. I wanted it every day.

I ran home and told my mom what I did during school that day. She was the first person to ever tell me about field hockey. Those two words went from being foreign to engraved into my heart. I never looked back.

***

Each fall, Stagg Field’s turf is smashed into the ground by the cleats of field hockey and football players. Yet with a roster that is five times the size of the field hockey team, it is clear that football usually does the most damage: both to the turf and more importantly, to each other.

FH Team
Repping maroon: Guerard (No. 15, top row, fourth from the left), with her teammates and coaches.

Springfield College athletic training reports an average of 37-50 concussions per year. However, the 2017-2018 school year quickly became an unusual one. “Typically football has the most. It’s just the nature of the game,” said Dugger. “[But] this year, field hockey had more than football.”

After helping to manage concussions for 25 years, Dugger suspects that this is due to a combination of safer practice methods and bad luck. While the results pertaining to these specific sports are rare, the focus pertains to much more than just numbers; it is about the student-athletes who are affected, across a wide variety of sports.

Springfield junior Drew Nirchio has been plagued by several concussions through wrestling. Despite the headgear worn by athletes, Nirchio explained that its primary purpose is to help prevent cauliflower ear, a deformity of the outer ear from trauma involving severe swelling and then shriveling. The gear does not provide protection from concussions.

The nature of the sport alone makes it virtually impossible to protect oneself. Nirchio explained, “If your arms are blocked and you get tripped, you hit your head. You can’t stop that.”

This situation is exactly what happened to Nirchio in high school, where he received the most severe concussion of his athletic career. Unable to free his arm or leg, he was smashed against the mat, head first.

“I remember seeing colors. It seemed like real life looking through a lava lamp, with the colors moving.” – Drew Nirchio recalling what he saw after suffering a concussion during a high school wrestling match

“I was out for a solid two minutes,” Nirchio recalled. “I don’t remember [anything] 30 minutes before or 30 minutes after at all.”

The one exception to this statement was the moment Nirchio woke up.

“I remember seeing colors,” he said. “It almost seemed like real life looking through a lava lamp, with the colors moving.”

Drew Wrestling
Nirchio competing in a wrestling match for Springfield College (Photo courtesy of Springfield College Athletics)

Nirchio, who went on to wrestle at the collegiate level, is not the only Springfield athlete to be impacted through concussions at the high school level. Senior Courtney Luscier, a three-time All-American track and field sprinter, was originally a soccer player.

“I was playing soccer, and then I woke up in the hospital,” said Luscier. “I remember going for the ball, and that was the last thing I can remember.”

After getting leveled on the field, Luscier was transported to the hospital, where she awoke to a new level of throbbing.

“They first thought I wasn’t responsive,” Luscier recalled. “I was, I just didn’t have the [energy]. My brain, it was just so painful, that I didn’t even want to talk.”

Similar to how most sport-related injuries are distinguished by crutches or bright colored casts, concussed athletes are distinct in their own way; they wear a reflection of their internal pain across their faces.

“Looking at you and understanding the mechanism of injury I can tell if you have a concussion, because when the athlete is evaluated they just look sick,” Dugger explained. “Their eyes are heavy, they kind of have a frown on their face, and they just have a look of not being in the right spot. The whole world is crashing on them.”

***

I raced down the field and b-lined for the net. Calling for the cross ball, I planted myself in front of the goalie. My back pressed against her goalie gear. My head faced my teammate.

The next thing I saw was a blur of red as her hard glove swung around my body and smashed straight into my face. My head jolted backwards and bashed into her helmet, before ricocheting forward. As my head hung for a moment, blood started gushing out of my nose.

My initial reaction was to turn and swing back, but college scouts surrounded the astroturf fields of this tournament. A fist fight would probably guarantee that I’d never be recruited. With every ounce of restraint I had, I walked away from the goalie and marched over to the referee.

“Um are you going to call anything? The goalie just punched me in the face!” I shouted.

“I didn’t see anything,” she had the audacity to reply.

“Are you serious? What, do you think I just gave myself a bloody nose for fun? You have-”

“Gabby!” my coach shouted. “Get off the field and go to the med tent!”

Gabby Bloody Nose
After the hit: Guerard (right) with a bloody nose following a game where she suffered her first concussion (Photo courtesy of Gabby Guerard).

Anger pumped through my veins as I tossed my stick off the field and sprinted uphill to the med tent. I was livid. But I remained focused enough to cover my bloody mess of a nose. I knew if I got even one drop of blood on my jersey, I wouldn’t be able to play any more games that day, thanks to a stupid sanitary rule.

I headed over to a lady who seemed medically inclined and explained, “A goalie just punched me in the face and my team is playing a man-down right now because we don’t have any subs. Can you please clean this up so I can get back in there?”

“Woah, hold up a minute. You got hit in the head? I need to ask you a few questions,” she said.

“I’m fine! I didn’t fall over or anything. I don’t have a headache. My name is Gabby Guerard. I’m at a field hockey tournament. This is UNH. Today is Saturday, April 26, 2014. The president is Barack Obama. I play for Seacoast United and my team is currently playing a man-down with me missing, so can you please fix me up as quickly as possible?”

“Fine, but if you have any headaches or dizziness, you have to come back up here immediately, okay?”

“Deal.”

She handed me a tampon and told me to shove it up my nose, as she wiped the blood off my face and hands. I ran back into the game, a white wad hanging out of my nose.

It wasn’t until after playing in five more games that I got behind the wheel to drive home. A headache took over my brain, as the adrenaline slowly left. Having driven 40 minutes already, my eyes began deceiving me. I was getting very dizzy, very quickly. Thankfully I was only a few minutes away from home.

But these symptoms didn’t fade. It was really happening. I had my first concussion, and was forced down a path that would only get worse and worse each time.

***

From the moment it starts, the Springfield Athletic Training Program takes the concussion protocol very seriously.

“If someone presents with [a symptom] of a concussion, we have to stop their participation for at least 24 hours,” explained Dugger. “If 24 hours have gone by and we deem that it is not a concussion, they can return to play.”

However if it is considered a concussion, which is the case about 85 percent of the time, the athlete reports to the team’s athletic trainer (AT) every day, so symptoms can be managed. After an initial cognitive rest, the athlete undergoes two tests: the ImPACT, and the Vestibular Ocular Motor Sensory (VOMS). The ImPACT test is done online within 72 hours of the injury, and compared to the athlete’s baseline, which is done prior to participation. The VOMS test requires athletes to do certain movements with their eyes and rate their concussive symptoms.

“That’s going to expose whether their concussion is vestibular related, such as balance, or occular related, which is visual, and sometimes it’s both,” explained Dugger.

These tests provide direction for the AT to program the athlete’s rehab.

“It has been found that the brain needs to be stimulated a little bit, but not overstimulated,” said Dugger.

After daily rehab exercises have improved the symptoms, the athlete repeats the ImPACT test. This test gives the AT a good indication of the athlete’s progress, before finally starting the five-day Return-To-Play-Progression.

“Each day is a little more amped up in cardiovascular and strength training ability, and eventually some practice activity, then full practice activity,” Dugger explained. “Most of the time, patients or the athletes, get better within 10-14 days and they’re back to normal, full function.”

“There’s no magic number.” – Barclay Dugger on the amount of concussions it takes to end an athlete’s career

While most athletes are back on the field within two weeks, that is not always the case.

“With all these concussions, everyone reacts to them differently,” said Dugger. “The protocol is the protocol, but not everybody is going to follow it in the same amount of days.”

The more concussions an athlete has, and the greater the intensity of them, the longer it typically takes to fully recover. Eventually, the risks can become so severe, that the athlete has to walk away from the sport they love. In this aspect, it is very similar to the progression, because it varies by individual.

“There’s no magic number, it’s more a matter of how sensitive you are to suffering from a concussion,” Dugger explained. “As you become more susceptible to them from less violence, it starts to expose the need to stop playing the sport.”

Nirchio was faced with this decision after sustaining his sixth concussion in November, during the Doug Parker Invitational. Although it was much less severe than his previous ones, his susceptibility was dangerously high.

“It was just such a minor hit that set me off so bad. I’ve gotten punched in the head before, and I was fine,” Nirchio explained. “I got a palm to the head, and I don’t remember what happened after that. You watch the video over and over again, and you’re just like, ‘Is that it?’”

After remaining foggy and being unable to concentrate for about a month and a half, Nirchio talked with his AT and decided he couldn’t risk any more. After 14 years, his wrestling career was over.

“I knew it was coming to an end, I just didn’t want it to end this way,” reflected Nirchio.

Luscier also found herself in that situation, however she never got to compete in collegiate soccer. Her decision was made after struggling to recover from her fifth concussion.

“I was thinking I had dementia at 18.” – Courtney Luscier

School proved to be a nightmare for Luscier, who initially struggled to get through 20 minutes of one class. She didn’t work her way up to two classes until two months later. Luscier couldn’t even eat lunch in the cafeteria with her friends, because it was too loud.

“Because senior year was such a slow progression, I was like, ‘It’s not worth losing all my ability to function as a person,’” Luscier explained.

To some extent, she temporarily had to live with a taste of that reality.

“I’d wake up and I wouldn’t remember things,” Luscier said. “It scared me at first, because I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, what is happening to me?’ I was thinking I had dementia at 18.”

Courtney Soccer
Playing with a passion: Courtney Luscier (in white), slides for ball during a high school game as a member of the Taconic Braves 

Both Luscier and her neurologist agreed that ending soccer was the best option, which provided an added assurance, knowing that a medical professional backed her up.

“She was the one who gave me the realization that soccer isn’t everything,” said Luscier. “Your life is so much more important than a sport.”

***

The Springfield College field hockey team was many things. More than anything, it meant four more chances to accomplish my dream: win a championship. I suffered three Division I state championship losses at Pinkerton Academy. Back to back to back. The most painful of which came senior year, losing with 0.7 seconds left on the clock.

In my first collegiate game, I didn’t get a single minute of playing time. I dreamed of becoming an impact player at this level.

I had worked my way up, essentially as the 12th man in a sport that started 11. My position was wherever Coach needed me to fill in, until I got my chance as a starter during the end of our season. I was growing into the player I had always dreamed of. But there was more to it than that.

This season I had a new edge, marked with the bright red and blue initials of JRF on my field hockey stick. I dedicated my season to my hometown best friend of 12 years, Jason Flood, who committed suicide on November 20, 2016. Every sprint, every hit, every ounce of effort I gave on that field was all for him.

When I stepped onto the center of the field for the game against Salem State, I did something that I never do. I took a moment. It was a simple, but quick glance around Stagg Field. It filled me with a sense of pride, being surrounded by my teammates and closest friends, playing the sport I loved, for a person I loved even more. I couldn’t help but grin ear to ear.

That joy was quickly crushed when the game started and I got my concussion within seconds. Three days later, it was senior day against MIT. My adrenaline quickly engulfed my symptoms and I rallied through 70 minutes. When the horn sounded, I stepped off the field for the last time.

My symptoms reemerged as the adrenaline faded, much more severe than before. The words of my neurologist echoed inside me. “One more concussion, and you need to stop playing.” This was definitely a concussion. This was definitely my “one more.” My field hockey career and dreams were over. It was time to put my brain first.

***

Any athlete’s instinct is to play through pain, but concussions can cause permanent damage. Without acknowledging both the immediate and long term dangers, some don’t walk away from the sport until it’s too late.

“You want to pull someone from the activity, because you don’t want them to suffer a second hit,” said Dugger. “Second hit is called second-impact syndrome (SIS), and that’s typically fatal.”

The second hit can come in a matter of seconds, or even weeks later, after the initial concussion. When SIS occurs, the brain is so sensitive that even a mild hit can cause it to rapidly swell and can kill the athlete within three to four minutes.

“You also don’t want to suffer from post-concussion syndrome (PCS), which can happen if you don’t stop,” Dugger added. “Ignoring symptoms and not seeking help increases the length of time of recovery.”

“I knew it was coming to an end, I just didn’t want it to end this way.” – Drew Nirchio

Although Luscier’s last concussion was over three years ago, she struggles with PCS. Due to refusing her concussions to fully heal, she now feels “brain dead.”

This issue peaked during the transition to college. She recalled, “I’d go to one 50 minute class and it would kill my head to the point where I just felt like my brain was swelling up.”

Luscier’s symptoms continue to interfere with daily life. She limits herself to one hour of phone use throughout the day, in attempt to avoid a throbbing headache. She writes down every single assignment, meeting, and plan, to combat her unreliable mind.

“Everyone makes fun of me. They call me my grandma, because I have no memory,” she explained. “I have to teach myself the same thing two or three times, and it’s really frustrating, because I would know that I already studied it, but I just have no memory of it at all.”

Luscier, like many, admits to being naive about the danger.

“In high school, you don’t realize how much of an effect a concussion is going to have. You think, ‘Oh, it’s not bad, you just hit your head!’” she said. “But then now, trying to be an adult, you’re on your own, and I can’t remember things.”

“Everyone makes fun of me. They call me my grandma, because I have no memory.” – Courtney Luscier

In severe instances, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), concussion damage does not fully show until later in life. According to the largest CTE case series, which analyzed the brains of 200 deceased former football players, “CTE was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177 players across all levels of play,” including college (48 of 53). It is an emerging issue at every level.

The average number of years of football participation among the study as a whole was 15.1. In the context of Nirchio and Luscier, they each would’ve hit the 15-year mark of competing in their sports during their senior and junior years at Springfield College, respectively. They chose to walk away, in hopes that it wasn’t too late, that the permanent damage hadn’t already been done.

***

After suffering from a number of concussions, I too had to cut my field hockey journey short. There will be no more preseason ice baths. There will be no more adrenaline rushes in the last five minutes of a game. There will be no more forehead tan lines from the bright maroon bandana wrapped around my head.

Next fall I will not wear the No. 15 jersey, but I will still be part of the team. As the manager of the field hockey team, I will support my teammates wholeheartedly. I will be their biggest fan. My love for the game will never change, but unfortunately, a piece of me will never be the same.

Gabby FH Stick
Guerard with her field hockey stick, marked with the initials of her hometown best friend, Jason Flood, prior to the 2017 season (Photo courtesy of Springfield College Athletics).

I have lost the biggest part of my identity, not because I didn’t work hard enough, not because I wasn’t skilled enough, but because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In two years, it will be my senior day. The day when all of the seniors are supposed to start together on the field. The day when the rest of the team is supposed to play with extra heart to get a win for their seniors. The day when seniors are supposed to be get the closure of playing on their home turf one final time.

When last I stepped off Stagg Field, it was senior day. But, it wasn’t my senior day. I was only a sophomore. I expected to take that field for another two years. I never thought that it would be my final game. I never got that closure. Instead, I will get to look on from the sidelines. I would give anything to play one more day of field hockey.

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