If timing is truly everything, then the events of this past week should combine to make play just a little bit safer for tomorrow's children.
Still not as safe as they could be, and arguably should be, but certainly safer than they have been.
This is, in part, thanks to institutions as seemingly divergent as the Governor-General of Canada and Victoria's Secret, to celebrities as different as hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and comic Martin Short – and thanks, as well, to a 17-year-old girl's parents and her best friend in Ottawa who are determined to tell their story, no matter how much it might hurt.
On Wednesday evening in Toronto, corporate, sports and entertainment elites gathered at the Royal York hotel to salute a much-loved medical pioneer and to raise money for Parachute Canada, a charity dedicated to the prevention of injury, in particular blows to the vulnerable head and spine.
Preventable injuries are the No. 1 killer of children. One child is lost every nine hours; each year, 13,000 Canadians of all ages die from incidents that could have, and should have, been easily avoided.
As the sign at the Parachute Gala said, it's "Time to Stop the Clock."
Hosted by Canadian actor Jason Priestley and featuring the music of the Jersey Boys, the absurdist comedy of Mr. Short and a deep-pocket auction that included such items as three slots at Gretzky's fantasy hockey camp and a trip for two to take in the unveiling of Victoria's latest secrets, the event raised an impressive $1,109,000.
The cheque was handed over to Charles Tator, the 78-year-old Toronto Western neurosurgeon who is the world's leading expert in concussion research, as well as its leading advocate for a common-sense approach that would make playing sports, even the most physical ones, as safe as it is enjoyable.
In Ottawa during this same week, heartbroken teammates, coaches and parents met in the Keefer Room at City Hall to hold an inquest into the tragic 2013 death of Rowan Stringer, a promising, multisport athlete who was most proud of her role as captain of the John McCrae Secondary School rugby team.
Rowan had suffered a blow to the head in a previous game but, as far too many athletes do in the suck-it-up ethos of team sports, she had hidden her injury. In a text message to her close friend Michelle Hebert, she conceded: "I might have gotten a concussion … have a headache again." Are you going to play on Wednesday? her friend texted back. "Yeah. Nothing can stop meeee! Unless I'm dead."
Little wonder sobs could be heard as those prescient messages were read out. Another friend, teammate Judy Larabie, testified what happened in the game Rowan should never have played. Ms. Larabie was brought down but managed to get the ball to Rowan, who ran a few yards and was herself tackled. She lay there a moment, raised herself, "and then dropped back down." She never regained consciousness.
The day Rowan had taken out her driver learner's permit she had filled out an organ donation form. She died on a Sunday; by Monday, eight families had been helped, including a man who, for the first time, was able to see his own children.
"In a strange way that helped us," says Gordon Stringer, Rowan's father. "She was telling us what to do even after her passing."
Gordon and Kathleen Stringer decided to speak out. Their daughter had loved rugby, lacrosse, snowboarding, ringette – all active sports – and they did not want their experience to be used as a platform to condemn such activity.
"That would be the last thing Rowan would want," her father says. "She'd be scowling down on us if we let that happen."
Kathleen Stringer told the inquest that she would always wonder if she shouldn't have asked more pointed questions about how the child was feeling. But would her daughter have said what was bothering her if it meant not playing the next game?
The answer, the mother said, lies not in restricting what children play but in making play safer. "You have to look after your brain," she told the inquiry. "Without it, you're nothing."
"We've got to get out of this mindset that there is a minor concussion or a major concussion," Gordon Stringer adds. "A concussion is a concussion. We need better education and better communication, but we mostly need to change this 'culture of invincibility' that sports has."
In a world where "playing through it" is hugely admired, changing that attitude is no small task. Former Canadian Football League great Matt Dunigan, who played through many injuries, told the inquest it took him two weeks after his final game, in which he took another blow to the head, before he could even engage in a conversation.
The solution, he argued, is not avoidance but education. As he put it: "Don't bubble-wrap your kids."
It was a theme often heard at the charity gala for Parachute. Governor-General David Johnston, himself once an accomplished college hockey player, appeared by video to call for more research and education. A couple of years ago, the Governor-General and Dr. Tator, along with hockey legend Ken Dryden and former Ontario attorney-general Roy McMurtry, worked long and hard to hold a national "Concussion Summit" at Rideau Hall, only to have critical stakeholders balk in the final weeks leading up to such a potentially groundbreaking gathering. It was a grand opportunity lost.
Others who gave testimonials by video included Rick Hansen, who talked about the happenstance of such injuries. Canada's world-famous "Man in Motion" was a 15-year-old kid hitchhiking back from a day's fishing when he accepted a ride in the back of a pickup, something that is against the law today, and was involved in an accident that would change his life forever.
The most moving testimonials, however, came from those whose names carried no recognition factor, but were family of young people lost but for momentary inattention.
A mother spoke about the son she lost when he did nothing but reach for a ringing cellphone when he was driving.
A father spoke about the daughter lost when she jogged into downtown traffic, a death he believes he would have prevented had he only talked to her about the dangers of running through city streets while your ears are plugged into music rather than reality.
Another mother talked about the hockey-loving son she had to say farewell to when she gave the okay to remove his life-support system, and how the only comfort she has lies in knowing his organs helped save six other lives.
Had the Stringers been there, they could have talked about their daughter while behind them was displayed photograph of Rowan Stringer in full flight with the ball, a look of steely determination on her face – the resolve they have "inherited" as they bravely tell her story in the hope of preventing another youngster from "playing through it" because, well, that's what's expected.
"I became a doctor because I wanted to help people," Dr. Tator told the gathering in Toronto. "I became a brain and spinal surgeon. I realized that trauma often caused such severe damage to the brain and spinal cord that I could not put the pieces back together. I was frustrated that I could repair skull or spinal fractures, but not the severely injured brain or spinal cord.
"I learned that prevention is the only cure."