“The cost is less than a cup of coffee,” says Dr. Don Harterre. “And we’re talking Tim’s, not Starbucks.”
“It takes eight minutes,” adds Laura Kennedy. “It will be like ‘Picture Day.’ Kids come down from class, take the test and go back to class.”
The two family health services professionals from Peterborough, Ont., are speaking of an initiative that one day could be standard across the entire country. Their plan is to test some 15,000 students in the area – age 10 through high school – in order to compile baseline statistics on area students that would be available if it were necessary to determine if a child had suffered a concussion.
This is not just about hockey, though it is hockey more than any other sport that has caused the area boards of education and parents to embrace the idea of having every child given such a test.
“We didn’t want it to be just about hockey and a couple of other sports,” says Harterre, running off a long list of activities where a youngster could receive a serious blow to the head: lacrosse, football, diving, skiing, tobogganing, snowmobiling, even fooling around in the schoolyard.
“But timing is everything, isn’t it?” says the retired family physician. “We actually preceded Sidney Crosby’s hit in terms of starting to get organized, but that is what has really caused people to pay attention.”
It is difficult to measure the widespread effect of the Sidney Crosby Phenomenon. Ever since the National Hockey League’s biggest star went down in early January – and has not played in the nearly 11 months since – the culture has changed dramatically when it comes to discussing head injuries. No longer are injured athletes deemed suspect. No longer do coaches insist players get right back into action. No longer does anyone make jokes about “getting your bell rung.”
Sports concussion is now serious business. When Laura Kennedy signed up her five-year-old boy, Michael O’Keeffe, for beginner’s hockey this fall, the parents were all aware of the dangers and all concerned, even though these are children playing under no-contact conditions. Harterre’s 17-year-old grandson, Jaime Clark, is a gifted athlete who has already suffered through two concussions.
“It’s become a motherhood issue,” says Harterre. “No, better than motherhood. Everybody is for doing something – no one is against it.”
The initiative began with Dr. Derek Krete, a physiatrist who moved into the Peterborough area two years ago and had previously played professional football for the Toronto Argonauts and Saskatchewan Roughriders. Personally aware of the dangers of concussion – the former middle linebacker once completed a CFL game despite having blacked out from a knee to the helmet that left him with blurred vision – and he found he was increasingly fielding referrals for evaluation of sports-related concussions.
There was, Krete found, a great gap between general awareness and scientific awareness, though he notes that “recent events in professional sports has awakened the media” and raised public interest in the dangers of head injury.
Krete wanted “a simple and common sense approach to issues surrounding youth concussion,” a straightforward program that was easily understandable and accessible to both public and professionals. Working in concert with the Greater Peterborough Health Services, the concerned health professionals came up with the Youth Sports Concussion Program that includes an online baseline measurement and a vast array of information for parents, coaches, health professionals and even the young athletes themselves – including a simple list of symptoms where “you don’t feel right” that could indicate a concussion.
Since they put the program together, far more than the area school boards have come on board. The initiative has been endorsed by the NHLPA and such athletes as former lacrosse great Bob Allan and hockey legend Bobby Orr. The ambitious program is also the charity of choice for this winter’s “Docs on Ice” – an annual gathering of hockey-playing doctors that has raised more than $1-million over the past 30 years of the tournament’s existence.
“Our grand plan,” says Harterre, “is to get enough money to set up an endowment so that we can test every child into perpetuity.”