Lincoln Academy hosted a Concussion Awareness Night on Thursday, March 15 in the LA gym. The event was organized by LA Athletic Trainer Megan DeRaps, who was inspired by hearing former boxer and concussion awareness advocate Ray Ciancaglini speak at an athletic trainers’ conference at the University of Southern Maine in November of 2017.
“Hearing a real life account of someone who has been drastically affected by a lack of education about concussions made me think, ‘if only someone had told Ray that someday he would have to live with those consequences, it might have made a difference.’” She immediately started working with school nurse Eric Duffy to bring Ciancaglini to LA as a guest speaker.
Ciancaglini addressed an audience of about 50 people in the LA gym during last week’s event. Attendees included students, coaches, parents, school staff, healthcare professionals, and athletes of all ages.
Ciancaglini told the audience the story of his boxing career, which started when he was 14. At 16 he took a right hook to the head that caused his first concussion. Despite suffering from headaches and nausea after that injury, Ciancaglini continued to fight, and not long after that he got his second concussion in the ring.
It was this second injury that began Ciancaglini’s real problems: he had trouble concentrating, and suffered from daily headaches and fatigue. He also experienced personality changes: he grew angry and resentful of authority figures. His continuing symptoms caused him to struggle in school, but he kept boxing.
Over time Ciancaglini’s symptoms, which also included forgetfulness and tremors, grew too serious to ignore, and he was forced to retire from boxing in his late twenties. He eventually learned that his issues were caused by Second Impact Syndrome, a progressive disorder that was “the direct result of not addressing concussions properly during my boxing career.”
“My only regret as a boxer is that I didn’t defeat my toughest opponent, and that opponent was a concussion. I fought this invisible opponent throughout my boxing career. I didn’t know I was in jeopardy of developing lifelong health issues.” Ciancaglini pointed out that “nobody knew any better back then.” And because he was never knocked out in the ring, he assumed that his head injuries were not serious enough to cause real damage.
“My condition could have been avoided if I had known the consequences of ignoring concussion symptoms.”
Ciancaglini has devoted his life to educating young athletes about the dangers of multiple concussions, but he is careful to point out that concussion danger should not deter people from participating in sports. He encourages young people to “pursue all sports. Athletics are beneficial to your growth as people: they build character, humility, and work ethic.”
“In boxing, like many sports, concussions are an inherent risk. Athletes accept that risk. Head injury is not entirely preventable, but what is preventable is sustaining a second concussion before the first one is properly healed. This can lead to Second Impact Syndrome, and this is where the serious problems begin.”
Ciancaglini painted a grim picture of his current life to serve as a warning about the consequences of untreated brain injury.
“I have had a headache every day since I was 16, and I am now 67. When I was young I slept excessively, now I am lucky to get three hours. I have tremors in my hands. I have dementia–I feel like I am in a fog every day. I have good days and bad days. I can function very well for short periods of time, and medication helps, but on bad days, I struggle to tie my shoes and I forget the names of lifelong friends. On bad days I am restricted to the house. My driving privileges have been taken away, and I can’t even take my grandaughters for walks, because of memory lapses.”
The workshop was very moving for attendees, who were attentive and asked questions after the presentation.
Eric Duffy found Ciancaglini to be a particularly effective spokesperson. “Ray’s story is striking because he embodies principles we hope to teach in sports: tenacity, hard work, stamina, self-awareness, setting and reaching goals. He showed how each of these things can have two sides; and how athletes can begin to value their performance on the field over academics and long-term health. His story made his message clear: listen to your body, rest it when needed, and don’t put dreams of success ahead of the reality of injury. The risks involved with re-injuring an athlete’s brain before it has fully recovered are real, and have far reaching impacts. Better to miss a few games than it is to hide the symptoms and live with the consequences for years to come.”
Megan DeRaps was pleased with the workshop, which she believes will help LA athletes make good decisions. “I hope students realize the importance of recognizing a concussion and seeking a medical professional for help,” she said. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of, you’re taking care of your brain as you would any other injury. The difficult part is that you cannot see this injury, and no two concussions are alike, so it’s hard for others to understand. The peer pressure student-athletes face from teammates scares athletes into hiding their symptoms… You only get one brain, it can’t be replaced, so you better take care of it!”
Ciancaglini concluded his talk by saying that his most important message “is about honesty… Hiding a concussion is not a badge of honor or courage. For me, hiding my concussion was a self-destructive act. Athletes must learn to self-advocate. Immediate honesty is the best insurance against long term complications from concussions.”