Posted at: 02/18/2013 8:34 PM
Updated at: 02/27/2014 12:20 PM
By: Laura Kennedy
Former Bulldog Ryan Geris knows firsthand that concussions can wreak havoc. His first concussion came as a sophomore in high school. He recovered, no problem. His second concussion as a college sophomore was a different story.
"It was behind the net, head was down," he said. "I looked up and the guy just ran into me and that was pretty much it."
The hit from a Bemidji State player had knocked him unconscious.
"I don't know how long I was out, but pretty much that whole night I don't remember anything," Ryan said.
He went from battling on the ice to fighting the daily side effects of a concussion.
"Headaches, forgetting little things that I wouldn't normally forget," Ryan said. "Concentration in school, all that stuff was hard. Sitting in class, couldn't do it."
For many athletes, the big question is when can they return to play? For their doctors though, that is the last piece of the puzzle.
"The first step I think is getting them back to feeling normal, succeeding in their academic life, and then getting them back to sport and activities," said Dr. Richard Kanoff, a pediatric neurologist at Essentia Health.
Two months after his concussion, Ryan was still having symptoms. It was decided he would sit out the rest of the season. The next year, he only made it through the first few games when a small hit brought back the headaches. Ryan's doctor told him his hockey career was finished.
"Thinking that you'd never play a game again. Right away it didn't sink in," he said.
Ryan's headaches did eventually go away again. Eighteen months later, his lifelong love for hockey still called, and he decided to make a comeback at UMD. Physically, he was in good shape. but he still faced a big obstacle.
"The main part was getting over it mentally, saying I can take a hit again and be fine," Ryan said. "Because hockey, you're gonna get hit. That was a struggle."
He finished his UMD career without any problems. The next year, he was playing on a minor league team in California when it happened again.
"I knew right away I was done," he said.
It was concussion number four. "I couldn't go outside for a couple months because it was summertime and the light bothered me," Ryan said. "The headaches were terrible. Had about three years of headaches after that one."
Dr. Kanoff says it's never easy telling a player they should walk away from their sport. But sometimes, there is just too much at stake.
"There have been situations where kids have had too many or too severe and even though they seem fine by all measures, I won't return them to play. And it's gut wrenching," Kanoff said.
Four concussions, and Ryan was done.
"Hockey players, we can take a stick in the face, get stitches and go play, or we can take a shot in the ankle and your ankle might be broken but you can keep playing," Ryan said. "But with a concussion, you can't do that. And that's the hardest part. It's one of those injuries you can't play through."
Dr. Kanoff says doctors today are more open to the possibility of a concussion. He says medicine has learned you can have concussion symptoms like headache, dizziness, nausea, even with a hard fall on the driveway.
"If you get hit in the head and it hurts in that spot, it may just be a soft tissue injury, but if there are these other symptoms, that's a concussion," Kanoff said.
Compounding matters is that each person's experience is different, and so is their treatment.
"It's about avoiding the things that make the acute symptoms worse and monitoring the patient so we do the transition back into activities in a safe way," Dr. Kanoff said.
Ryan is back on the ice these days. But if he gets hit here, he should still be okay.
"It's fun teaching the kids that are learning how to skate and learning the game," he said.
This year he started coaching youth hockey for Duluth Heights.
"I've been able to have some other friends who play in the NHL come and skate with us," Ryan said. "It's great to give back to the kids because they love it."
Ryan's rocky journey appears to have a happy ending. He's still finding fulfillment at the rink. But Dr. Kanoff says a key factor for future athletes dealing with head injuries is the need for a change in the culture and mindset.
"It's about players becoming honest," Kanoff said. "It's about taking yourself out of play when you're not right after a hit."
There is still a lot to learn about concussions, and a need for answers. But it starts with the understanding that a concussion is the hit you can't shake off.
Check out the first part of "The Hit You Can't Shake Off" here: http://www.wdio.com/article/stories/s2935806.shtml