R.I. Baker shines a light on concussions

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Defenceman Ty Prefontaine addresses students and staff at R.I. Baker Middle School in Coaldale during a presentation on concussions by Lethbridge Hurricanes hockey players and staff.

COALDALE – A visit from the Lethbridge Hurricanes didn’t provide students or staff at R.I. Baker Middle School with any autographs, or memories of a hard-fought floor hockey battle.

Instead, they received something much more valuable. Their junior hockey heroes helped create greater awareness of concussions – including the need to report potential head injuries – and provided first-hand accounts of how devastating their impact can be.

“You have all these plans for your future,” noted Principal Jason Prebushewski, as he addressed students to wrap up the session. “Basically it’s the brain that says whether or not you can do that. If you can’t remember things, or you have trouble focusing, or you can’t recall words or stick to one thought for a while, that’s going to affect what you can do in your future.”

Hurricanes’ athletic therapist, Marty Palechuk, shared information about the cause of concussions, the symptoms and the protocol followed to ensure affected players are fit to return to action.  Staff and students at R.I. Baker then heard from players Dino Kambeitz, Ty Prefontaine and Koletrane Wilson.

As the players awaited their turn to speak, the audience would be hard-pressed to figure out which of them might have personal knowledge of concussions. That is one of the challenges in ensuring head injuries get the attention they deserve.

“There’s not a cast you can wear, like Dino’s foot right now,” said Wilson of the Hurricanes forward, who was sporting a walking cast. “People look at you and say ‘you look fine, you should go play. Why are you missing two months?’ No one really understands until you have one.”

The burly defenceman knows what he speaks of. Wilson has suffered two concussions, one off the ice and the other the result of check from behind in minor hockey, which knocked him unconscious for 10 minutes.

While he missed the remainder of the season and the playoffs, he put the impact of concussions in terms the students could relate to: you can’t play video games or spend time on your smart phone.

“You can barely read, because just looking at those words hurts so much,” added Wilson.

Kambeitz has had three concussions, two of which resulted in significant memory loss. Neither do the side effects necessarily end once a player returns to the ice. Just recently he experienced motion sickness and headaches after a virtual reality experience.

“It’s not like my foot here, where it will heal fully and I won’t have any repercussions. With your head, there’s always something lingering around,” said Kambeitz.

Prefontaine realizes he’s fortunate to be concussion-free. He’s been playing hockey since he was two, and plays a physical game as one half of the Hurricanes’ “Twin Towers” defensive pairing with Wilson.

Concussions aren’t exclusive to hockey by any means, pointed out Prefontaine.

“Make sure whenever you are doing something, you’ve got to make sure you are being safe,” he said. “Sometimes you probably don’t want to wear a helmet. Sometimes you might want to do something cool with your friends, but you have to make sure you are taking care of your head because it is such a serious injury.”

While it was a shoulder injury that ended his collegiate hockey experience, Palechuk suffered a major concussion in an off-ice incident in 2002 and wasn’t symptom-free for another eight years. He recalled handing in a totally blank exam shortly after the incident, and his professor lamented she could have at least given him one mark if he had put his name on the test.

“I said ‘honestly mam, I don’t remember my name,’ ” said Palechuk, adding he certainly has greater empathy as a result. “Unless you deal with one, you don’t completely know what other people are dealing with.”

Prebushewski invited the Hurricanes to the school after recent events made him realize staff and students needed greater education about concussions. A large part of that was emphasizing the need to report all potential head injuries so the proper precautions can be taken.

Palliser Regional Schools implemented a division-wide concussion procedure in 2016. Go to http://bit.ly/3astPmn to view it.

While schools offering contact sports are more familiar with that protocol, Associate Superintendent Tom Hamer said it’s important everyone is up to speed given research on the impact of head trauma on learning, and the long-term effects of undiagnosed, or misdiagnosed, concussions. Palliser recently added online training for staff on concussions under Occupational Health and Safety guidelines.

It is crucial that incidents – both during, and after school hours – are reported so a medical professional can determine whether there’s been head trauma.

“More importantly is the development of the return to activity or return to school plan,” said Hamer, adding it may be necessary to come up with a modified program of learning for such students to maximize their ability to return to a normal life after head trauma. “We have to ensure we are giving them the supports they need to return to school.”