In 31 years of coaching soccer, Bob Ellis had experienced it all, or so he thought. Then came Alter’s boys high school home opener against Monroe late last month.
“I’ve never seen anything like this and I’ve seen bones sticking out,” recalled Ellis, the Knights’ head coach.
“It sounded like two hammers. It sounded like an explosion. I don’t know how either one of them got up.”
Alter’s senior captain and three-year starter Brian Walsh and an opponent knocked heads while chasing a loose ball in front of the Alter bench. Walsh immediately crumbled to the ground; the other player remained upright.
The game was stopped and both players were helped to their benches. Both passed the requisite concussion questions: Where are you? How many fingers? Who’s the opponent? What’s the score? What time did the game start?
Brian applied ice to his aching noggin. He wanted to return to play.
Both players returned to the game after sitting out about five minutes in the second half of a 2-0 Monroe victory.
“We were losing at that point and I was itching to get back in,” Walsh said. “I didn’t feel woozy or have any memory loss. I felt normal, except for the goose-egg lump on my head.”
Within 12 hours, everything would unravel for him.
He’s not right
The next day at school, “there was a problem,” recalled Ellis.
Alter theology instructor Norm Rich was the first to notice. It wasn’t yet lunchtime, but Brian was “acting funny” then “out” in his chair. Taken to a nurse station, his parents, Pat and Darlene, were advised to seek immediate medical attention.
It didn’t take long for Dr. Victoria Taylor of PriMed Kettering Pediatrics to diagnose delayed concussion symptoms.
Dayton Children’s Hospital was next. A CAT Scan revealed a large mass inside Brian’s skull. Worse, it was growing.
The on-call neurosurgeon at Children’s wouldn’t be out of surgery for another 12 hours. Brian’s fate couldn’t wait. Frantic calls and arrangements were made.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Bethwel Raore was prepping for Brian’s surgery when he was wheeled into Miami Valley Hospital.
The diagnosis was an epidural hematoma. Usually caused by trauma, it’s an injury that results in a massive buildup of blood that pressures the brain. Left unchecked, it can be fatal.
The particularly cruel part of an epidural hematoma is its delayed progression. Victims initially often feel fine, then succumb.
Actress Natasha Richardson suffered an epidural hematoma in 2009 following a skiing accident in Quebec, Canada. She twice refused medical attention. Two days later she was dead.
“I thought, this can’t be that bad,” Pat said. “He was fine. (Dr. Raore) said this is a fairly significant injury and it isn’t going to go away. We need to relieve this pressure.”
A drain tube was inserted into Brian’s growing “goose-egg,” which by now covered an unsightly part of his head. It worked.
In less than two hours, Brian was out of surgery. His youth served him as much as quick-thinking school personnel and doctors. It’s estimated that 20-30 percent of those who suffer an epidural hematoma die.
A safety issue
Although not labeled a contact sport, soccer players will say otherwise. Heated play that results in bumps and bruises is the norm. Aggression usually wins out. That can lead to injuries to bodies that aren’t protected as opposed to football or hockey players.
Ellis suggested his players might want to wear protective — and optional — headgear after this near tragedy. All were helmetless the next game and next practice.
Soccer concussions are a growing concern. Head-to-head collisions are the most frequent cause. FIFA and U.S. governing soccer bodies were hit with a lawsuit last week that seeks class-action status for soccer-induced concussions. Similar lawsuits have been served to the NFL, NHL and NCAA.
If approved, it would benefit thousands of current and former soccer players and “alter safety rules including limiting headers for players 17 years old and younger,” according to an Associated Press report.
Get well soon
The only remnants of Brian’s brush with fate is one black eye, a row of staples in his skull and a fashionable pull-over cap on his shaved head. He looks like he was in a coffee-shop scrum.
He vividly remembers everything, including the head-banging, until phasing out his last day in class.
The Walsh house is full of get-well cards and giant placards signed by the Alter senior class and others. Each parish that Brian attended has stepped up, providing meals, prayers and emotional hugs. That part of “Alter community support” has been overwhelming, said Darlene.
Brian is weaning off anti-seizure medication. He reads and watches TV, but quickly tires. Each day is better than the previous one.
A lot more to do
If there are no complications, Brian will return to school later this month. What he won’t do is ever play sports again. Ellis wants him to be an assistant coach, whenever that might be.
Brian calls himself lucky.
“I’m not the first one that’s happened to and I won’t be the last,” he said, carefully choosing his words.
“It’s tough. You’ve got to think about how much more you have left. I’m only 17. I have a lot more that I need to get done. I’d rather go on and do what I was put on this earth to do than risk it by playing more sports.”