With the stroke of a pen on the morning of August 6, 2012, New Hampshire sports of all levels became safer.

New Hampshire Governor John Lynch had signed Senate Bill 402, requiring the immediate removal of students suspected of getting a concussion in a game.

“It’s great, our association was obviously supporting it the whole way,” manager of sports medicine at Cheshire Medical Center Tate Erickson said.

“We were there making sure language was correct and making sure everything was in line and now we’re still fully behind it.”

Erickson is part of a program that oversees three local high schools (Keene, Monadnock and Fall Mountain) as they deal with sports coverage, injury evaluations, treatment and rehabilitation.

He said that although concussions are impossible to prevent, bills like S.B. 402 are major steps towards making playing fields across the state safer.

New Hampshire became the 39th state to make legislation directed towards concussion protocols.

The doctors consulted when the bill was being written said their biggest focus was preventing secondary concussions.

“I think the primary goal, the biggest thing was recognition of concussions and therefore prompt removal of suspected concussions,” Dr. Kevin Heaton, who was in attendance when mayor Lynch signed the bill, said.

“I think that is the primary area that we need to improve on and it is happening, but the awareness needs to grow even more.”

The bill clearly states that, “continuing to play with a concussion or symptoms of head injury leaves the student-athlete especially vulnerable to greater injury and even death.”

Its passing had a larger impact at the high school level than the college one.  Erickson estimated that out of all the high schools in New Hampshire, roughly 40 percent of them were without athletic trainers.  The bill ensures that athletes suspected of having a concussion at those schools will be evaluated and completely medically cleared before they can return to play—something that was unlikely as recently as two years ago.

Although the National College Athletic Association doesn’t have a mandatory concussion reaction for colleges, most have already developed concussion treatment guidelines.

Ratliff, director of athletics, explained Keene State College’s approach.  “We do a baseline concussion test on all first and third-year players and it’s a process of doing a symptom scale,” Ratliff explained. “That becomes part of their records that we have, and if at anytime during the course of the season they have a concussion we can go back to that, it’s one of the many tools we use to assess the possibility of a concussion.”

Head Athletic Trainer at KSC, Bob Merrow, said the school’s protocol didn’t change much because of the bill.

“We actually had our protocol before [S.B. 402], we were very pro-active. Our team physician, our staff as a group, established this protocol,” Merrow said. “I do know a lot of the aspect of that bill didn’t come out of the collegiate need because they have medical professionals with them, it really came out of the fact that we were seeing more and more concussions at the high school level and that’s the area where they don’t have the health care coverage.”

Dr. Heaton mentioned several times that younger athletes were more prone to concussions than older ones.  He said that there is a “huge difference” between the average high school and college athlete’s ability to recover from concussions.

Merrow added that his daughter is an athletic trainer at a high school in New Hampshire and she sees many more concussion cases than him every year.

The bill also encourages schools to educate their coaches and athletes about the dangers of concussions.  Dr. Heaton said education is one of the most important things doctors and schools can focus on.

“When I see patients, that’s what the majority is, educating them on concussions,” Dr. Heaton said.  “We go out in the community and put on lessons to the public, go into the schools during sports nights and integrate concussion lessons.”

Still, some have said the bill’s “encouragement” platform on concussion education is too soft.  Other states, such as Ohio, require that steps be taken to educate players and coaches.  But some people familiar with the resources available to New Hampshire schools don’t think that’s plausible.  Erickson is among them.

“I think that seems a little unrealistic to me, in those thirty-plus high schools that don’t have medical staffs,” Erickson said.  “I know our athletic directors make the coaches watch the “Heads Up” concussion videos so it’s really athletic director-specific.”

But regardless of the way it encourages education, the bill is the first concussion-related law signed in New Hampshire.  Those familiar with legislation know it can be a slow, baby-step process and major changes don’t come overnight.  So much has been recognized about the consequences of head injuries in recent years, and Erickson believes athletes have only just scratched the surface.  Senate Bill 402 is a step in a safer direction.

Erickson also said in some cases concussion education can be the community’s responsibility. “If people are criticizing the bill in their own school district they should be pro-active about educating the coaches and emailing and calling the AD’s expressing that,” Erickson said.  “If you’re not happy with your schools district’s education, then do something about it.”


Zach Winn can be contacted at  zwinn@keene-equinox.com

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