By MAX BENNETT
Capital News Service
COLLEGE PARK – When Tom Hearn’s son suffered a concussion playing high school football, he decided to take action.
It was a junior varsity game in 2011; Hearn’s son was playing for Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.
Hearn, 55, and his family sought treatment for his son’s concussion, and when the symptoms subsided and the concussion stabilized, Hearn decided to meet with coaching staff to determine what could have been done to protect his son and to protect other athletes at risk for concussions.
“The coaches were nice, but it became clear that the problems of weak policies and procedures were deeper than I thought,” he said.
Walt Whitman Athletic Director Andrew Wetzel said the school follows county and state concussion policies.
The school’s response pushed Hearn, a bureaucrat at a federal banking agency, into advocacy, pressing for athletic trainers in all county high schools and for better education of parents, athletes and coaches of concussion signs and protocols, he said.
“Seeing the injury up front helped me understand how concussions can affect people,” he said.
Hearn sees concussions as a public health issue with ramifications ranging from lost time in school to homelessness. A recent study funded by the St. Michael’s Hospital Head Injury Clinic in Canada showed roughly half of the country’s homeless population had suffered from brain injuries.
Hearn said he fears that for students at schools without athletic trainers, their injuries are not being properly managed.
The year before his son’s injury, 16-year-old Edwin Miller died of heat stroke four days after collapsing in summer football practice at Northwest High School in Germantown.
Montgomery County public schools began using athletic trainers at 13 of its 25 high schools as part of a pilot program during the 2013 – 2014 school year. Local medical vendors contracted to perform baseline concussion testing now use their staff as part-time athletic trainers as part of the pilot.
Dr. William Beattie, director of systemwide athletics in Montgomery County, said the school system adopts policies based on recommendations from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Federation of State High School Associations. He said the school system makes changes based on tried science.
“We need to be careful before we go investing money into systemwide changes,” Beattie said.
After being frustrated by the early response of county schools and athletic association officials to some of his concerns, Hearn spoke to the Maryland State Board of Education.
He pressed for the adoption of regulations similar to the Massachusetts Department of Health concussion requirements — to limit full-contact practices and take concussion oversight away from the state athletic association and put it into the hands of the state Department of Education.
Board member Kate Walsh was impressed. “He’s a rare citizen who sees an issue and really does the work and seeks change,” said Walsh, now president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “I think it’s noble.”
Hearn said he was unprepared for how much effort it would take to make a change in concussion management, education and policy.
Large school systems, Beattie said, sometimes “don’t move as quickly as a person wants us to.”
Hearn said he pushed the state board of education to set limits on full-contact practices in high school football, to two a week. “I was really pleased to see the limits on practice hitting,” he said.
Hearn believes his advocacy contributed to the pilot program that provides part-time athletic trainers at Montgomery County schools.
Beattie said the school system doesn’t react to any one person’s testimony. “What we do in MCPS is respond in large measure to the state athletic association,” he said. “The state athletic association responds to what the national athletic association does.”
Beattie said the county school system made changes because the state made changes.
Hearn said parents need to be involved in ensuring their children’s safety during games and matches.
“For parents, there are a lot of people saying stuff,” he said, “and sorting through all this stuff, you can be paralyzed.”
He said he is not opposed to sports, he just wants safer sports.
“Sports programs are great for community and team building, but they represent a very different aspect of schools. It’s sort of ironic that a school system runs any program that can interfere with student academics,” he said.
Hearn has garnered the attention of The Concussion Blog and its author, Dustin Fink, an athletic trainer based out of Central Illinois.
“Tom has done a tremendous job, not only raising awareness about concussions, but in student athlete safety,” Fink said. “As an athletic trainer I really appreciate his advocacy for having [a trainer] at every school.”
Hearn said when he has time to speak out again, he plans to urge the Montgomery County Board of Education to require collecting and reporting data on sports concussions.
He said the adage in education is “you measure what you treasure,” and feels that collecting sports concussion data is just as important as collecting test scores.