It’s only going to hurt you as an individual if you’re not honest with how you’re feeling. That’s probably one of the biggest messages to send out. We try to pound that home with our athletes —Utah trainer Trevor Jameson
SALT LAKE CITY — Jake Connor held out hope that the headaches would go away and that he would start sleeping better. The University of Utah basketball player also waited for improvement with lingering concentration and vision issues.
Despite clearing the university’s extensive concussion protocol, Connor still battled the effects of hitting his head twice in a span of three weeks prior to the 2015-16 season.
He did so privately.
“For a while, I did deal with it by myself ... because I was just worried about staying in there,” Connor said. “I didn’t sleep very much.”
The lack of rest was understandable on a couple of fronts.
“I think he knew that something was seriously wrong and he was afraid to find out, or afraid to tell us, because I think he was afraid of what the results were going to be,” said Jake’s mother Kathryn.
It didn’t take long, though, for outward signs to emerge. The biggest red flag was in the classroom.
“He flunks two final exams, bombs them,” said Jake’s father Tommy, who is Utah’s associate head coach.
For obvious reasons, it didn’t sit well with mom and dad.
“Our first response was we were upset with him,” Tommy said. “‘You didn’t work hard enough. You didn’t prepare enough. This is important. What are you doing?’”
That’s when Jake began disclosing things like not being able to concentrate and developing blurry vision while working on his laptop. There was also an inability to finish tasks on time and difficulty remembering things.
Additional disclosures came before a game during warmups. Jake revealed to his dad, that the arena lights were hurting his eyes and that he had a headache.
“I was just kind of like this has been happening to me every day,” said Jake, who noted that team trainer Trevor Jameson was apprised of the situation.
Jake was immediately pulled from contact and remained sidelined for the next five months or so. Jameson consulted with team physician Dave Petron and Jake underwent a battery of tests during the months that followed. He met with specialists like Angela Eastvold, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Utah. The Connors credit her for assisting greatly in Jake’s recovery.
Jameson said everyone involved is careful not to point fingers. There’s no “shame on you” or anything like that when it comes to Jake’s initial decision to keep some things to himself.
“Sometimes when you have these things happen to you you’re really not sure that you’re not doing good,” said Jameson, who noted that some people choose to just plow through things that may linger.
Jake told the medical staff that he was doing fine. He even tested well. The concussion protocol failed, though, to reveal the whole story.
“It’s only going to hurt you as an individual if you’re not honest with how you’re feeling. That’s probably one of the biggest messages to send out. We try to pound that home with our athletes,” Jameson said. “Look, if you get a concussion you’ve got to be honest with everything. But some of them, they want to play so bad, they’re going to tell you that they’re fine. Testing can’t screen to catch everything if someone is not being open with all their symptoms.”
The educational process is ongoing. Jameson noted that all sorts of data is being collected. Researchers are working to be more objective in diagnosing and treating concussions — looking at blood markers, functional MRIs, psychological changes, signs, symptoms, and resolutions, as well as neurological testing.
“We are also working to learn how to follow up better and to rehabilitate those who sustain concussions,” Jameson added.
At the University of Utah, Petron narrates a short video on concussions that every student-athlete must watch each year and then sign an acknowledgment that they understand it and will report symptoms.
Although Jameson estimates that about 90 percent of concussions are resolved in a week to 10 days, he said everyone is unique. Things aren’t black and white.
"You always have those that sit outside the box, that are a little bit different,” Jameson said. “Being able to understand how to navigate those, or get those back, those are the ones that are a challenge.”
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Jameson stated that Jake Connor’s case is atypical. The 21-year-old had eight concussions while growing up. The head injuries came while participating in activities ranging from ice skating to being undercut while playing basketball for Highland High.
Jameson isn’t exactly sure how the previous concussions — which the Utah staff was aware of — were treated.
“The biggest thing we try to do at Utah is educate our student-athletes on what a concussion is and the signs and symptoms that you see,” he said, adding that players are encouraged to watch their teammates, too.
“This isn’t like an ankle sprain or trying to fight through a thigh contusion or whatever,” Jameson said. “Sometimes you can get through those things. But this is your brain. We want to be very protective of that.”
Despite all the awareness, it still comes down to what an athlete tells the medical staff. Jameson emphasized that a concussion can change your life.
Jake’s mom agrees.
“I think the bottom line is that concussion syndrome is a very real life-changing event that affects not only the athletes but also their family,” she explained. “But there is hope. We saw Jake in his early testing, like Tommy said, and in his post-testing we saw him come back to normal brain health.
“It’s a long path for some people. For Jake, it was six months,” Kathryn said. “But it’s worth it.”
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The CDC notes that almost half a million kids in the United States are treated in emergency rooms each year for traumatic brain injuries, including concussions.
“You should see a physician. You really need to see a health care provider that can give you the information and help you navigate how to return somebody from a concussion,” Jameson said. “Just sitting out for a week and then getting back to activity doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be better.”
It depends on the severity, especially for people who have had multiple concussions — like Jake.
“He needs to be really careful,” Jameson said. “He is taking a little bit of a risk.”
Playing sports, though, obviously isn’t the only way someone can suffer a concussion. A fall in the shower, a car accident, or activities like skateboarding can result in a brain injury.
“Take anything that happens to a kid’s head seriously and follow up. The longer I do this, the better I’m becoming at following up with things,” Jameson continued. “Even when someone says they’re feeling good and they’re better. We’re trying to do more and more follow up.”
Data is still being gathered, he said, because the brain is such a complex thing.
“Do not neglect or overlook even the littlest of signs or symptoms,” said Tommy, who pointed out that it doesn’t have to be a violent hit that puts things in motion. It could be something that can worsen over a 24- to 48-hour period, so doctors recommend that a person be watched.
The Ute coach advises folks to use much more caution than perhaps they would. There is no date for recovery; it’s when things are back to normal.
And there are decisions to be made along the way. In Tommy’s case, he was advised by Eastvold in a meeting with his parents to think things through very careful when it came to resuming his basketball career. Another head injury would be magnified because of his past history.
Tommy and Kathyrn weren’t going to make the decision for him. They vowed to support him either way after gathering all the information from doctors.
Jake opted to resume his playing career. After several months away from contact, he took a charge and went down in his first week or two back on the court.
Although there was some cringing when it happened, Jake got right back up and all was well.
Jameson said Jake knew he was good after that. He’s gotten past the point of worrying about getting hurt again.
“I play a little bit more cautiously. It’s hard to,” said Jake, who added that taking charges and being aggressive is part of his tough approach on the floor. “I don't want to play the game cautiously, though, and think what if I hit my head again.”