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The lessons of one young hockey player's pain and denial

Andrejs Linde,is a 14-year-old hockey player who received a concussion when he was checked on the ice. He now spends his days in the darkened rooms of his Toronto home, and avoids physical activity.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

For two weeks, 14-year-old Andrejs Linde was keeping something from his parents. He felt dizzy every time he stood up. He had disorienting headaches nearly all the time. And when he stepped outside, the glare of a sunny, snowy day was overwhelming.

Andrejs knew what was causing the headaches, but he wasn't saying a word. He had been the victim of a nasty check during a hockey game, and at the time, he thought little of the blindside hit that had propelled him sideways, delivering a blow to the left side of his head..

He told coaches that he felt fine that day, and that he could go back out on the ice. Trainers kept a close watch over him, and even followed up later. The teen insisted that he felt okay.

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At 5-foot-9 and 120 pounds, Andrejs is one of the biggest kids on Toronto's Leaside Minor Bantam A team. He leads his team in scoring, with 25 goals, and he delivers as many hits as he absorbs. This isn't the kind of kid who gets pushed around.

He kept playing for two weeks after the hit. But his coach noticed that he was backing off plays, and his parents kept asking if he felt all right.

"I could feel players behind me around the boards, even when they weren't there. I realized I was feeling scared," Andrejs said. "And the headaches weren't going away. I also took a slapshot to my finger, so I kept telling my parents I needed Advil for my finger, when actually I needed it for my head. I didn't want them to know or I would have to stop playing."

Andrejs's mom, Laima, was persistent. She remembered the hit well and kept asking her son about his head, even weeks later. "He had a look like there was something that needed to be said, like something was really bugging him," said Ms. Linde, who manages the team. "He finally broke down and said, 'My head is killing me.'"

So the Lindes took Andrejs to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, where they endured a five-hour wait and discovered that he had post-concussion syndrome. "In triage, the nurse asked him, 'On a scale of one to 10, how much pain are you in?' And Andrejs has had a broken collarbone, so he knows pain," Ms. Linde said. "He said, 'Eight.' I was shocked. You're in that much pain, and you're just telling me now?"

He was told to go home and rest in darkness for two days before a reassessment: no school, no video games and definitely no hockey.

He wasn't getting any better, so the Lindes visited a clinic where Andrejs underwent the same concussion testing used in pro sports leagues. First, he did a balance test. Then he struggled through a 20-minute online test that he found very difficult, clicking on shapes, colours and words to test his verbal memory, visual memory, motor speed and reaction speed. His verbal memory tested fine. But in the other areas, his scores were a concern.

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"For a kid who … is very strong in math and sciences, these were not great scores," said Grant Lum, the medical director at the clinic and an adviser to the National Hockey League Players Association. "But we didn't have a baseline test to show how he performed before the injury, so we couldn't tell for sure just how long he will need to recover." Dr. Lum recommends that schools and sports associations administer such tests to determine athletes' healthy scores, which could later be used for comparison if the athletes suffer head injuries.

Andrejs was told to go home and do nothing for two weeks, which sounded okay at first: at home all day with no parents or siblings. But it also meant sitting in darkness, and he couldn't use computers, watch TV, play video games or battle his two little brothers in mini-sticks. One night, he begged to watch a few minutes of the hockey game or listen to his iPod. Both denied.

"I just sit here. I either listen to the radio or just sit," Andrejs said, fidgeting on a couch in a back room with the blinds drawn after his two brothers and sister had headed off to school. "It's hard to fall asleep, because there is so much yet nothing going on. You want to do stuff but you can't," he said. Naps and eating are his only activities these days, unless you count popping Advil.

"It's more than just missing games, he's missing his life," said his father, Peter. "The blinds are drawn all day. He's basically hanging out in a cave." His parents try to stay up late with him to keep his spirits up. His eight-year-old brother, Ilmars, "misses the old him." Andrejs tried watching a couple of his team's games, but the headaches felt worse after the outings.

"I called all the players into a meeting and told them what the outcome was with Andrejs, and said, 'if you're not honest with coaches, trainers and your parents, you could be out a long time and do a lot of damage to your health," coach Brian McKeown said. "After that conversation, another kid anted up to his parents that he's been having symptoms."

While the Lindes can't imagine taking hockey away from their three sons, they want to prompt discussion and educate parents on the need for baseline testing for concussions. Mr. McKeown wants to have the whole team baseline-tested.

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"One big thing we've learned is that you can't rely on any type of self-assessment by the child. Kids love the game, they want to play," Mr. Linde said. "You can't fault them for that."

Andrejs will undergo further testing next week. If his scores improve, Dr. Lum will recommend easing back into school. Andrejs said the headaches are slowly getting better. He struggles to describe the feeling. It's not a throbbing pain; it's dull, and he just doesn't feel like himself.

"If I was hit again, I would definitely tell my parents right away, because I could have gotten hit again and made it worse, and I could have been healing and maybe back playing by now," he said.

The Lindes know Andrejs isn't destined to play in the NHL, but he plans to make hockey a part of his life for many years.

"He can teach other kids that getting hit in the head is no laughing matter," Mr. Linde said. "There's no reason to hide it. Deal with it - it's a real injury. It means nothing if no one else learns from Andrejs."

Rachel Brady is a reporter with Globe Sports.

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