Rep. Matthew J. Conway, Jr. is a confident lacrosse coach at Suffield High School. He is not as confident in his ability to diagnose a concussion.
To play it safe, he benches players he suspects might have a concussion until a medical professional has cleared them and 24 hours has passed.
“I have to tell players, ‘Sit down you are not playing this game,’” he said during an Education Committee public hearing Wednesday. Last season, one of the players Conway benched later was found to have suffered a concussion. “Imagine if I let them go back in.”
The Education Committee is considering a bill that would require all coaches to follow Conway’s policy, and to undergo training to identify warning signs of a concussion.
Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, co-chairman of the committee, said the votes are “absolutely” there for it to become law.
“I have not heard one single objection from anyone about this. This will cost nothing and it makes sense,” said the Meriden Democrat, who suffered a concussion himself during a high school football game years ago.
Joe Bonitatebus can attest to the lasting effects of a head injury that doesn’t seem serious at first. The 17-year-old Ridgefield High School senior told the committee he was whacked with a stick during a neighborhood street-hockey game.
“I was fine at first. I was mad I was hit in the nose with a hockey stick,” he said. “But an hour later the headaches began.”
Two years later, the daily headaches remain and doctor’s orders are to refrain from playing contact sports. Bonitatebus, who was on the school soccer team and had plans to play baseball, said he misses sports but is willing to sit it out if there’s a risk of brain injury.
If the bill is adopted, Connecticut would be the third state to have a law regarding possible concussions in student athletes, Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney of New Haven told the committee. Oregon and Washington adopted the law last year.
“When in doubt, sit it out,” he said.
Statewide, 5,000 to 8,000 student athletes suffer from a concussion each year, estimated Paul Hoey, associate director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference.
“It’s not an insignificant problem,” he said. There are currently 107,000 high school athletes in the state.
Several medical professionals told the committee pulling players from the game is critical, because if a player is sent back in and receives a second blow the chances of permanent brain damage are increased.
Doctors, athletic trainers and other medical professionals “are the only people qualified to determine they are safe to return to play,” said Julie Peters, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Connecticut.
The section of the bill requiring medical approval to come back into the game will not be a problem if a student lacks health insurance, Gaffey said.
“Schools have medical staff. There are people to do this,” he said.