Our son, a hockey player, had three concussions by age 10. As a writer of a current events blog for kids, I’d been aware of the increasing number of news stories about concussions and worried about our son getting hurt long before he ever did. Hockey, while a great sport, is high on the list for risk. Even though strides are being made to make it safer, the game naturally got rougher and faster as he got bigger.
So, needless to say, we were surprised when his first concussion happened at school. My concern had been centered on the kids at hockey whizzing by him with knives on their feet, the hard boards and even harder ice. But it happened while he was sitting down in gym class where he was accidentally kneed in the back of the head.
Within the year though, he’d have two more concussions — this time both from hockey. His head hit the boards on the first and the ice on the second. Ten months separated the two. He was wearing a helmet, of course. And this happened despite him being a smart player, having the safest equipment, and excellent medical care.
His symptoms were increasingly horrible with each one. With the first, his eyes skipped and he couldn’t handle loud sounds or bright lights. With the second, he couldn’t do basic things like identify the number seven written on his hand. With the third, he developed migraines so bad that we’d regularly have to hold his throbbing head in our hands as he sobbed. He missed three months of fifth grade and of just being a kid. There aren’t words to describe how unbearable it is to watch your child suffer.
When our children were born, one of our goals as parents was to help our kids find their passions and support them in that.
So, when our son, at age 7, said he really wanted to play hockey, it seemed reasonable, even fitting. After all, thousands of kids play. And I grew up in Canada where hockey is woven into the national fabric.
Our son loved every nano-second of playing hockey. He could put on 15 pieces of elaborate hockey gear in the dark at 5 a.m. on a weekend, faster than he ever put on a pair of shoes for school. He saved up his own money to buy a regulation hockey net and bid on used pucks on eBay so he could practice at home. Our garage door has puck marks, our basement drywall has holes, and our electrical outlet covers have been smashed. He also spent countless hours making cardboard hockey arenas complete with working lights, drew pictures of his hockey heroes, and organized his vast collection of hockey cards.
But after his concussions we had some decisions to make. Do we let him play hockey again if his heart is set on it? As a child, could he fully comprehend the risks? Do we as adults? At what expense do we let our children follow their dreams? And at what cost do we not? How much risk is acceptable? How do we help a 10-year-old reconcile that what he loves the most has now hurt him the most too?
We could handle a broken arm, but this was his brain. Even doctors are reluctant to tell a child he’ll never do something again. But we couldn’t ignore the growing evidence of the long-term detrimental effects of repeated injuries to the brain. And even of sub-concussive blows. For us, the odds seemed to be in favor of it happening again; and it can take so little to have catastrophic consequences.
Even though these are personal decisions with many variables, we realized we weren’t alone in this. Nearly a quarter of a million kids visit the ER every year with possible sports and recreation-related head injuries, according to the White House. President Obama hosted the first ever Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit last year to address this growing problem across a wide range of sports.
As we grappled with these issues, and as he slowly healed, we asked our son to set himself a goal to have something to look forward to and take his mind off his brain. He said he’d like to climb the tallest mountain in New York, Mt. Marcy. I remember thinking, seriously? What’s wrong with playing the piano?
I was getting ready to bubble wrap this beautiful child and call it a day. Game over. Lesson learned. But that’s not what he was trying to teach me.
With our doctor’s blessing, we headed to the nearest indoor climbing gym, where our son’s focus has since shifted to. It wasn’t at the top of my list of activities that seemed safe given what we’d been through, though my excitement at seeing a gigantic sponge-y mat for him to land on was palpable. I did learn that with climbing’s inherent risk, there’s an immense focus on safety. Indoor climbing is a surprisingly safe sport and its supportive culture speaks volumes too. Even in competition, climbers help each other succeed. They pass along their hard-earned tips after climbing a route and then go cheer each other on. Everyone is trying to give you a leg up, literally and figuratively.
Though fame and fortune weren’t at stake for our son, his health increasingly was. He walked away from hockey on his own terms, and he was able to find something he’s even more passionate about. Within a year, he went from being house-bound with debilitating headaches to becoming one of the top ranked climbers in the region in his age group.
But it’s more about the lesson I learned. How much risk is acceptable in kids sports is something we, as a society, are in the process of re-evaluating. As my family struggled to find our new comfort zone on the spectrum of risk, our son showed me that it’s not necessarily about dropping off of it (I’ve got some bubble wrap to sell). But that there can be great rewards when risk is balanced with resilience. I watched with amazement that he was able to re-chart his course and find the right balance for himself, all in a remarkably short period of time.
With his new sport as his metaphor, he understands that any given climb requires taking one step at a time, creative problem solving, and some failure too.
Our son’s last concussion was almost a year-and-a-half ago and the neurologist still hasn’t cleared him to play hockey. That, in theory, would happen this month. We knew we’d need to have an answer about his return to hockey by then. For us, it’s not relevant anymore.
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