By LIZ LANE
Capital News Service
COLLEGE PARK – Walking through the 160-year-old halls of Catonsville’s Mount de Sales Academy, freshman Kayli Burns felt like the new kid. Sister Anne Catherine, the principal, led the 14-year-old and her mom, Dawn Burns, to each class in her schedule. On that cold February day, Kayli met teachers and friends for what seemed like the first time. But it wasn’t.
Kayli had just walked those halls, listened to those teachers, and laughed with those friends less than a month before. She forgot her favorite class with Claire Sargo, the beloved biology teacher. She couldn’t place the name of the most popular religion teacher, Sister Mary Jude. The friends she once sat next to in the crowded lunchroom were now strangers.
“It would tear me up that I had no recollection,” Kayli said. “But I got used to it.”
Kayli had to get used to it because she couldn’t stay home from school forever after her injury. What seemed like a run-of-the-mill knock to the head during a junior varsity basketball game a month earlier was actually a concussion that would drastically alter her freshman year and cause reverberations even today — four years later.
“I know the exact date [of the injury]; it was January 18, 2010,” her mom said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Kayli, now 18, was playing forward on the Mount de Sales team in a game against Bel Air’s John Carroll School. She jumped up for a rebound and took the elbow of an opponent to the right side of her head, right above the ear.
“They tell me I ran down the floor with the ball,” Kayli said. “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
What Kayli experienced with this concussion was a form of a traumatic brain injury. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that the injury is caused by “movement of the brain within the skull,” and can result from the type of blow to the head that Kayli suffered.
On that day, Kayli did, in fact, run down the floor. From the stands, her mom heard screams from the court as teammates yelled, “Kayli, you’re bleeding!”
In the collision, the opponent had scratched Kayli’s face. Because she exhibited no immediate symptoms of a concussion, the blood was the only reason she was removed from the game.
The CDC lists temporary loss of consciousness, vomiting and slurred speech, among others, as signs of a concussion. Kayli did not experience these symptoms.
Dr. Kevin Crutchfield said via email that patients like Kayli, who exhibit no “normal” concussion symptoms, are more common than people realize. The neurologist at LifeBridge Health in Baltimore is an expert on concussions and other brain injuries, but he is not one of Kayli’s doctors.
Reports of concussions in teen athletes are on the rise. About 250,000 concussions were reported in 2009 in children under 19; that was up from 150,000 in 2001, according to a 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine.
Dawn Burns waited for her daughter to return to the game, but Kayli remained on the sidelines. Her mom left the stands and met with Athletic Trainer Kate Conti, who suspected a concussion when Kayli couldn’t name the day of the week or the U.S. president.
Her mom called into the stands to the rest of the family as she led her “dazed” daughter to the car. At a little after 5 p.m., they were rushing to the pediatrician’s office.
“I’m scared,” Dawn Burns recalls Kayli saying, as she cried from the backseat.
“Kayli, do you know who I am?” she asked.
“You’re my mother.”
“Do you know my name?”
Crutchfield said memory loss after a concussion is a complex issue, one the medical field is still trying to understand. The initial blow to the brain impairs memory. Concurrently, other symptoms such as chronic pain or sleep deprivation can also affect memory and a diagnosis.
“This is important to distinguish because the latter conditions are treatable,” Crutchfield said. “Actual physical injury to the areas of the brain mentioned may cause permanent disability.”
After the pediatrician told the family to take Kayli to the emergency room, a CAT scan revealed, to the relief of everyone, that Kayli’s brain was not bleeding, and they all returned home after midnight. The only damage? To her memory.
Kayli stayed home from school for two full weeks despite the encouragement of neurologists and other doctors to return so that she wouldn’t fall too far behind.
“It made me sick to my stomach,” Dawn Burns said. “I couldn’t make her go [back to school.]”
Kayli was still re-learning her address. She still couldn’t remember her phone number. Properly brushing her teeth was a struggle. Kayli even slept in bed with her mom at night while her dad, Steve Burns, slept in hers.
“Nothing was familiar to her,” her mom said. “It was awful, just awful.”
Then the winter storm came that dropped about two feet of snow on Baltimore during the first week of February. Kayli stayed home for about two more weeks while school was closed.
“That was kind of a blessing in disguise for us,” her mom said.
Dawn Burns took a leave of absence to stay home with Kayli to re-teach her school materials, both fearing that Kayli would be held back because of her concussion. When the snow melted and Kayli felt ready, she met Sister Anne Catherine at Mount de Sales on what seemed like that first day.
Gina Hisky was also a freshman at Mount de Sales and remembers what it was like when Kayli returned. “It was scary to think that she got the injury while playing sports at school, which was something I had done my whole life,” she said.
“When Kayli came back to school, it was pretty shocking for me.”
Kayli said that at the time, while the athletic directors and trainers remained attentive to the needs of athletes, no rules were in place like the ones now.
“When I got my concussion we didn’t have to be cleared [by a doctor] to come back [to school],” Kayli said.
Sister Anne Catherine said Kayli’s injury prompted the administration to give more direction to concussion response and, specifically, academic accommodation. What were individual responses to Kayli’s needs are now part of the overarching plan for all concussed athletes returning to Mount de Sales.
The school implemented a baseline testing program, which tests an athlete’s mental and cognitive agility before the season and again every two years, said Athletic Director Annie McDonald. In addition, a physician is now required to specifically clear an injured athlete to return to play and school.
Following her injury, Kayli said teachers gave her extra help during class and did not assign her written homework. When it came time for final exams, they only tested Kayli on information she learned after the injury.
Because of the administration’s response, Kayli’s schooling was manageable. Still, she found it hard to be with friends and family. “What don’t you remember?” was a constant question.
“I don’t know what I don’t remember, because to me some things are as if they never even happened,” she said. “It started to come back little by little over the [next] month, but the doctors said that I’ll never have my full memory back.”
The memories that did come back returned in spurts. One night, later in the season, Kayli and her mom attended a Mount de Sales basketball game to support the team. As they crossed the parking lot onto a bridge overlooking a lake, Kayli stopped.
“This looks familiar,” she said.
Kayli then began describing her last memory of standing on the bridge. She described a young family she knew but still couldn’t name. Her mother had to remind her of the names of these friends the family had known for 16 years, and of the vacations they all would take together to Deep Creek Lake.
Moments like this were the hardest for Dawn Burns. “I’m a software engineer, and for me, there is a process to everything,” she said. “But I couldn’t find a rhyme or reason [to her memory loss]; it was so random.”
Now, four years later, Kayli said she only has between 80 percent and 90 percent of her pre-concussion memory. Still, she resumed sports despite medical research suggesting she had an increased likelihood of suffering a second concussion. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons cites a study from McGill University in Montreal that athletes who have already suffered one concussion are four to six times more likely to suffer a second.
Kayli didn’t finish her freshman basketball season but walked onto the varsity soccer team six months after her injury. Except for her memory loss, the young athlete said her body felt like normal.
She returned to basketball the next season.
Kayli’s two sports are the ones most associated with sports-related concussions in teen females, according to Cleared to Play.org, a concussion-awareness nonprofit.
To help protect her head, Kayli began wearing the popular Full90 headgear and still wears it today, while playing club soccer at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. The headgear is a brace-like strap for the top of the head that softens the blow of anything that comes into contact with it.
While the headgear does not eliminate the risk of a second concussion, some research shows that it may help to reduce head injuries as a whole.
“We just need to play with caution, because I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through what I went through,” she said. “It’s a serious injury that some people take lightly.”
Her mom understands the risks associated with playing sports and says it’s not the game that is the problem.
“Players just need to be aware” of the possibility of a concussion, she said.
While Kayli couldn’t remember her favorite biology class that first day back at Mount de Sales, she is now majoring in the subject and plans to become a dentist.
The concussion may have affected her past, but she said she is determined to keep it from affecting her future plans.