Aug 5, 2014
09:22 AMHealth & Wellness
Former NY Ranger Mike Richter Among Those Affected by Concussions
Former N.Y. Rangers goalie Mike Richter was forced to retire from the NHL due to the lingering effects of a concussion.
Mike Richter had been hit before but never like this. It was November 5, 2003, and the New York Rangers goalie was on the ice against the Edmonton Oilers when he was inadvertently kneed in the head by oilers forward Todd Marchant.
A U.S. hockery Hall of Fame player, Richter, who moved to Greenwich after retiring from hockey, had helped lead the Rangers to a Stanley Cup title in 1994. During his 14-year career he had endured his fair share of hits and injuries, including a fractured skull and concussion the season before this incident. But all those past injuries paled in comparison to what Richter experienced in the aftermath of this particular hit.
“If you break your arm or pull a muscle or have some other injury, normally it’s pretty acute at the moment it happens but within 24 hours you’re past the worst of the pain,” he says. “That was not the case with this. I got hit, didn’t feel right and it got worse not better over the pursuing weeks and even months.”
He had terrible headaches, trouble with short-term memory and sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises. Even the best medical experts could offer him little solace. “I remember asking the neurologist when will this get better and she said, ‘We don’t know,’” Richter, who is now in his late 40s, says.
That uncertainty was worse than the symptoms of the concussion, worse than the pain it caused. For Richter, not knowing when or if he would get better was terrifying.
“It was a pretty long nightmare,” he recalls.
“I think probably the simplest way to think of concussions is if you look at the brain as a giant telephone network,” says Dr. Neil Culligan, director of the Western Connecticut Concussion Center in Danbury, which is run by Associated Neurologists. “So there are billions of connections between brain cells, and what happens with the typical concussion is some of those connections get torn or disrupted. This is all happening at a microscopic level, you can’t see this on CT scans or MRI scans or any other scans. What happens over time [as the concussion heals] is the brain adapts after the injury and either makes new connections or reroutes the information in a different way so that people can return back to normal functioning.”
Concussions are currently a hot-button issue in professional and collegiate sports. Persistent head hits in the NFL, which begins its season this month, have resulted in rule changes about head-to-head contact. In July, the NCAA agreed to provide $70 million for concussion testing and diagnosis of current and former student-athletes as a part of concussion lawsuit settlement. And this season, MLB implemented a new rule aimed at reducing collisions at home plate.
The controversy has also trickled down to youth athletics, prompting many parents to ask questions about the long-term effects of concussions and the dangers of contact sports at a young age. Culligan and other medical experts say more research needs to be done before definitive answers can be provided.
“We really don’t know enough right now about long-term effects to make statements about whether or not kids should be participating in contact sports,” says Culligan. “There certainly is clear data that repeated concussions at a high level over time can cause permanent damage. The problem is we don’t know how many concussions, what kind of concussions, who is more susceptible.”
One thing that is clear is that properly diagnosing a concussion and responding to it can limit the discomfort and cause a child or adult to heal quicker. Making sure concussions are diagnosed and treated properly was a goal of state legislation passed this spring, which stiffens concussion protocols in high school sports. State Rep. Diana Urban (D-Stonington) sponsored the bill after three Westport mothers whose children had difficult histories with concussions approached her. The son of one of these moms, Diana Coyne, suffered a series of concussions while playing high school football that he kept from her; he later suffered another concussion while on the football team at Yale University.
Coyne says the new regulations “will help to educate parents and athletes on the seriousness of these injuries, and show why when you have one of these injuries you need to seek medical treatment and you need to allow your brain to heal.”
Dr. Karen Laugel, a pediatrician and the medical director of HeadZone Concussion Care, a concussion treatment and management center with locations in Shelton and Waterbury, serves on a task force that will be advising Urban on a new draft of proposed concussion regulations that will be prepared sometime this winter. Laugel says it is important to address the issue of concussions with legislation because they’ve always been dangerous and the frequency seems to be increasing.
“I think there probably are more concussions because our kids are playing harder and longer, as well as starting younger, in almost all of our sports,” Laugel says. With new legislation she’d like to see a variety of regulations implemented, including mandatory education of all students and parents starting in the elementary-age group regarding the symptoms of concussion.
In the immediate aftermath of his concussion Mike Richter’s first concern was getting back on the ice and helping his team win, but that changed as the severity of the injury set in.
“At first the question was ‘Can I play Thursday?’” he says. “Then the question was ‘When can I work out again?’ Then the question was ‘When will I Just have my life back?’”
Soon, doctors told him he was out for the season.
“I was absolutely devastated—I didn’t really see it coming,” he says. But as he endured the serious symptoms of the concussion he was better prepared when his neurologist told him he should retire at the end of that season.
“It’s a bigger concept to swallow but that point I had been shown the severity of this thing and really just wanted to get my life back more than anything else,” he says. “I had a wife and two young kids.”
Though a concussion can occur as a result of contact sports, the injury is by no means limited to athletics.
“Only one of every four concussions actually occur in organized sports,” says Katherine Price Snedaker, a Norwalk mother and founder of a variety of concussion-related organizations including Pink Concussions, which seeks to provide information about female concussions. “Yes, there are a lot of sports concussions and that’s where the focus is but that’s not the majority of it.”
Katherine Snedaker learned this the hard way when her son Charlie, who was in sixth grade at the time, got a concussion during recess from being hit by a stray ball from a soccer game he was not involved in. In the aftermath of that injury Charlie was slow to recover and ended up getting additional concussions. Snedaker says that she realized she did not handle the initial concussion recovery properly and has started lecturing about concussions to help other parents avoid the same mistakes.
For his part, Charlie Snedaker, now 17 and a senior at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, said he had difficulty describing his conditions. “There’s no way to measure, at least not yet, how bad a concussion you have—it’s basically just the person with the concussion telling their doctors or parents how bad it is,” he says. “It’s really hard when people don’t believe you and say you’re just trying to get out of going to school and you have a really bad headache and the lights are affecting you and the noise is affecting you.”
However, properly recognizing and responding to the symptoms of a concussion are key to limiting its adverse side effects.
“If a concussion is managed properly, kids are generally completely better in 30 days,” says Katherine Snedaker. “If the concussion is mismanaged, kids take about 100 days to get better.”
For Richter, sleep was key to recovery but it was hard to come by. “When I first was hit I couldn’t stay awake in the day and I couldn’t get to sleep at night,” he recalls. “It was like I was eternally jet lagged.
However, that gradually changed. After about six months he recovered almost fully and began regrouping and adjusting to life after hockey. “You feel so old as an athlete when you’re in your late 30s, but you’re still young as a person, you’ve got a lot of living to do,” he says. During his career he had taken summer courses at Ivy League schools including Columbia. Once his professional playing career was over he decided to focus full time on academics and attended Yale, where he ultimately graduated with a degree in ethics, politics and economics.
After graduating, Richter, a longtime environmentalist, founded Healthy Planet Partners, a Greenwich-based firm that helps companies and building owners make buildings more energy efficient through a variety of technologies and strategies. “Most buildings out there can use an energy upgrade, there’s very few buildings that are running at peak efficiency,” he says.
His experience with concussions has not soured his opinion of organized sports. He points to the increase in research that is now underway that will provide a better understanding of concussions, and that on the whole, youth and professional sports are moving in the right direction.
“We don’t have it all right but we’re identifying a very, very serious problem and one that will have a solution, and we’re marching toward it,” he says. “I’m a big fan of kids participating in sports at all levels but I think you need to do it wisely and right now we know enough to be concerned and so you have to err on the side of caution.”
If you do get a concussion, Richter says its imperative that you allow yourself time to recover.
“You better respect that your body needs to heal and the beautiful thing is that it does,” he says.
Former NY Ranger Mike Richter Among Those Affected by Concussions