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Lodi Unified School District nurse and NFL wife Sandra Merriweather writes book about concussions

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Posted: Thursday, May 23, 2013 12:00 am

The wife of a retired NFL player isn’t happy with how concussions are treated in student athletes. In a new book, Sandra Merriweather tackles the problem head on.

“It’s a problem for all contact sports athletes. I tuned into high school because while they are in school, we can still reach them,” she said.

Her book, titled “A Football Wife’s Research Study for the Love of the Games,” details the signs and symptoms of concussive head injuries and how school nurses and coaches can better treat them.

Merriweather works as a school nurse in the Lodi Unified School District and wants to help her fellow nurses get up to speed on treating these injuries.

There are different types of concussions, Merriweather said. One is a mild traumatic brain injury, or a basic jolt to the head.

But another, called chronic traumatic encelphalopathy, or CTE, is neurological disorder caused by repeated concussions. It was found in football players who had repeated concussive episodes without proper treatment.

Those repeatedly injured athletes are also subject to second impact syndrome, caused when the brain hasn’t yet recovered from the first hit. The brain swells too much, and the results can be fatal.

“If you didn’t heal from the first one and you take another blow, this could be very detrimental,” she said.

Merriweather spent two years researching her book by surveying California hospitals, high schools and studying the work of Dr. Bennet I. Omalu, a local pioneer in the study of brain trauma and football.

Her football connections gave her access to cutting-edge research on the treatment of head injuries. Merriweather spent years on the sidelines of professional football while her husband Mike Merriweather played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings in the 1980s and ’90s.

Recently, she sat down for an interview with the News-Sentinel. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

What inspired you to work on this book?

I was watching TV and there was footage of a student football player who was lying on the ground from a hit. There was no ambulance, but a school nurse from the stands came down to assist him. I wanted to jump through that screen to help him. It moved me so much. There is so much news about concussive injuries, but not a lot of research.

Who needs this information?

Anyone who works with student athletes. Nurses, coaches, athletic trainers, parents. The book is intentionally short so that parents can use this as a guide.

What surprised you in your research?

There was clear evidence of inconsistent treatment among medical professionals. Nurses may not exactly know what they should be looking for because head injuries are so different in degree and severity, and because of new research.

At the time of study, one major hospital had no head injury plan specific for children in the ER. The plan they did have was too general. (Children’s brains are) not as developed, so they need separate guidelines.

How can high school employees do better at caring for athletes with concussions?

Create a baseline history for athletes in impact sports. It’s important to know an athlete’s baseline neurological and cognitive status prior to games ... If you know how they are before they started playing, when they get injured, you’ll have something to compare it to.

Know each student’s history, and have a symptom checklist at school so nurses know what to look for.

What’s the key solution to treating concussions more effectively?

The key solution is to be up-to-date on research. Advancements are being made and we don’t hear about them. Then take all of this knowledge and incorporate it into a school plan of care.

How should school nurses care for athletes with these injuries?

If a child gets a concussion, do not let them back in the game, even if they say they are OK.

Certain things should be limited after a concussion. Have students take frequent breaks, and give them more time on assignments to avoid brain fatigue while healing. Do not let them return to sports, P.E. or even recess until they have been medically cleared.

Keep a close eye on the student, have them report their symptoms and watch for worsening headaches, confusion, irritability, nausea or numbness. These are signs of a bigger problem.

Why is this important to you?

We have to speak up, to be advocates. This is no game. I want to protect the potential athletes of tomorrow — then maybe we’ll see those kids playing the games they love.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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