The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Concussions kept her off the court. Now she wants to help others deal with them.

(Courtesy of George Washington Athletics)
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Talk to Lauren Chase for just a few minutes about her basketball career, and you’ll almost inevitably wind up asking about her brain.

The George Washington guard laughed this week after I apologized for yet another interview focused more on her concussion statistics than her assist-to-turnover ratio.

“I think I’ll pretty much be talking about it for the rest of my life,” she said.

For the record, Chase is in the midst of one of the best stretches of her career. The fifth-year guard was tied for the 10th-most assists in the country entering this week. She leads the 20-4 Colonials in assists and steals, has averaged 14 points over her last five games, and is the team’s only player to start every game this season.

Terps women are learning hard lessons form turnovers

Her concussion stats, though, are just as compelling. The former high school star at Riverdale Baptist endured one concussion as a freshman at UMBC. Another as a sophomore. A third after she transferred that spring to George Washington, which finally forced her to sit out her entire junior year — no games, no practices, no cardio for months. When she came back last season, another head injury and concussion-like symptoms kept her out of the lineup for four games as a precaution.

Some athletes might have fled from that history. Chase did the reverse. She sat on a panel about brain injuries. She gave countless interviews about her recovery. And she changed her life plans, from going to law school with an eye toward the entertainment business, to studying the brain with an eye toward helping athletes psychologically recover from concussions.

As she completes her final season of college basketball, Chase is also pursuing an unusual course of graduate-level study: a master’s program in counseling with a concentration in traumatic brain injuries. While leading the Colonials to the top of the Atlantic 10 standings, she’s been taking graduate coursework in medical disabilities, intake and assessment, and brain injuries, like the ones that almost derailed her career.

“I just really gained an interest from my experience, and that kind of solidified what I wanted to do,” Chase said. “I think it’s great that I actually have that first-hand experience, that I could relate to this population. Because I could have benefited [from such a counselor], and didn’t have it.” 

Her head injuries started after a collision with Maryland post player Lynetta Kizer during her freshman season. Chase is a 5-foot-5 guard who’s “not scared to bump with the big girls”; Kizer was a 6-4 future WNBA player. While battling for a rebound, Chase bounced off Kizer and hit her head on the floor. She felt like she was “in a daze, in a fog,” had a concussion diagnosed and sat out her team’s next four games.

The next preseason, she got tangled with a teammate during a scrimmage and had a second concussion diagnosed. After transferring to GW in search of a higher level of competition, she was elbowed by a teammate during a postseason practice in the spring of 2013. Her trouble sleeping and struggles with dizziness went away after a couple weeks. The headaches didn’t.

“It’s sad, because I kind of got used to it,” she said of the pain. “I would wake up, and it would just be something normal.”

She took medicine for migraines, which didn’t help. She made repeated visits to doctors. And she visited a specialist, the team neuropsychologist for the Washington Capitals, who advised that she take a year off from basketball. Lauren was shattered, and the family considered getting yet another opinion. But her mom said she would never be able to forget that recommendation. In this climate, what parent would chose the less conservative approach toward their child’s brain?

“She begged and pleaded for us to go take her to another neurologist, but I said no,” Laura Chase said. “Focus on your studies. Focus on other things. Try to help your team on the sidelines.”

Which, of course, was no easy task. As so many athletes have discovered, waiting out a head injury is a different challenge than waiting out a strained hamstring or a broken arm. There’s more mystery, if that’s the right word, and no firm sense of when things will improve. Chase sometimes found herself in tears after watching games. Her schoolwork took a brief dip, and she initially kept her injury private, since she felt too emotional to discuss it. She went to balance therapy twice a week for six months, and finally spoke about her experience during a GW-hosted panel on concussions, held in conjunction with the NCAA.

Parents got in touch with her after that event, hoping she could talk to their children who had suffered head injuries. GW’s coaches had her counsel a teammate who was dealing with a lengthy concussion absence of her own. She had planned on law school, but eventually switched her attention to the topic that had consumed a year of her life.

Then there was the matter of returning to the court. Chase and her parents had at least discussed whether it would be better for her to just end her career out of precaution — “because it’s my brain,” she explained with a grin.

“And so it occurred to me,” she said, “but I think that once I started to see some type of progression throughout that year, where my headaches eventually went away, I started to become more hopeful and positive.”

A series of tests administered at Children’s National Medical Center convinced the family that she could return to contact sports, and they agreed that one more concussion would finish her career. When Chase returned, she was sometimes hesitant and afraid of contact, something that had never worried her before. Teammates call her “Bird” or “Birdy” because of the aggressive way she picks at opponents. Her coach said she’s “naturally fearless,” and she described her game as “gritty.” Being cautious, she said, “kind of stopped me from producing,” even as the whole team shared her anxieties.

“There were times when she got hit and went flying, and I think we all held our breath,” Colonials Coach Jonathan Tsipis said. “Honestly, I think we all did that for about six months, no matter what it was.” 

Time, and practice, took care of those feelings. It’s been more than a year since she missed a game. No one describes her as cautious now, and no one holds their breath.

“The thing she has is this two-fold sense of urgency,” Tsipis said. “She feels like it is just a blessing that she’s getting a chance to play again, and you put that together with her being a fifth-year senior and knowing it’s her last time out there, and it’s unbelievable how she’s taken the team under her wing.”

Head injures, of course, are still a part of her life. She is pursuing an internship with the brain injury department of the Maryland Division of Rehabilitation Services. She reads literature on the topic “just because I find the subject matter so interesting.” She said she cringed at some of the collisions during Sunday’s Super Bowl, while sympathizing with Panthers wide receiver Corey Brown, who left the game with a head injury. She and her parents also watched Will Smith’s “Concussion” with special interest. (Her parents usually wait for movies to come out on demand, but this time they went to the theater.)

On the court, though, things are no different. She has no symptoms, no headaches and no hesitation about continuing to play a contact sport, even as the reporters continue to ask about her head.

“She’s still out there taking charges,” her father Bryan said. “We always sit up in our seats when she falls, but that’s just part of the game, and she knows that. She doesn’t think about it, so we can’t think about while she’s playing. Because she’s a competitor. So we can’t tell her to slow down.”