Bethesda, MD resident Tom Hearn does not have a medical background. He didn’t attend medical school, he was not a chemistry or biology major and he isn’t exceptionally interested science. However, Hearn is better versed on concussions and their impact on the human brain than most in the Washington, D.C. area. Armed with an arsenal of knowledge gleaned from hours of Google searches and historical research, Hearn has set out to change Montgomery County, Maryland’s perception of what it really means to sustain a concussion, and how simple changes within the county’s athletic standards could decrease concussions and minimize their impact on student’s academic endeavors.
Hearn’s original foray in to the world of concussions began four and half years ago, when his son was a sophomore at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. When his son sustained a concussion in the middle of the season, Hearn was interested in the way Whitman’s football coaches approached the injury.
“It certainly could have been handled better,” Hearn said. “Six weeks after the injury when I went in to speak with [my son’s] coaches, I left the conversation feeling like his coaches were really clueless about the underlying risk of his injury.”
When his son’s recovery turned out to be a “false recovery,” Hearn made the decision to further explore the overall attitudes and training procedures of coaches throughout Montgomery County.
“I spoke to the head of Montgomery County Public Schools, William Beattie, about having trainers on the sidelines during games,” Hearn said. “Beattie was pretty convinced that we didn’t need them… that parents could get students to their own personal doctors if they were injured, which is such an outdated view.”
Dubious after his meeting with Beattie, Hearn set about attempting to create changes within the county on his own. He began attending the Board of Education’s monthly meetings, where he would continually speak during each meeting’s comment period. He also began attending meetings that discussed budget operations, where he would lobby for the allotment of some funds for athletic changes. While people listened, he was still met with skepticism.
“From the beginning I found this early sense of resistance and inertia and I realized the status quo had been set,” Hearn said. “[But] high school athletics are an important part of the community; it is an activity removed from academics but injury can cause issues with participation in the core activity of academic education.”
Montgomery County Public School athletes are all required to undergo baseline concussion testing, a test taken via computer at the beginning of every season to set a base for each athlete’s brain functioning. The test is meant to help coaches and parents assess whether or not an athlete has sustained a concussion.
While Hearn approves of baseline concussion testing, he thinks more in-depth tests need to be completed to assess the seriousness of the impacts of repetitive hits during football.
Ideally, Hearn would like to see the use of more FMRI testing in high school football players. MRI trackers are inserted in to the helmets of players and these trackers measure the amount of hits each player undergoes while tracking brain functioning.
“It’s not just about the single big hit people see that results in the concussion. It’s more about the all of the little hits that occur- RBT- repetitive brain trauma,” Hearn said.
During Hearn’s advocacy, he went in to pay a visit to Walt Whitman High School Principal Alan Goodwin. Goodwin has been a supporter of Hearn during his time advocating for more specific recommendations and procedures to be put in to place.
“He [Goodwin] has been very receptive and supportive,” Hearn said. “He also commented that there has been a much lower turnout for football in the past few years.”
While not on an outright quest to eliminate football from public school athletics, Hearn still has much concern for the game and the way it impacts young players, all of whom are still mentally developing. He also worries about the enormous influence the NFL has on young boys in different communities.
“There is a fundamental question of whether schools should be organizing and supporting a repetitive brain trauma activity,” Hearn said. “But [The NFL] is an industry that has determined that a huge part of its revenue depends on young kids continuing to play football.”
While Hearn still continues to advocate towards increased policies and procedures regarding concussion awareness and handling, he has not been as active since his son began attending to college in 2014. However, he does continue to stay informed of what is happening regarding policies in the county, and remains up-to-date on concussion related news. He is hopeful that as movies such as Concussion gain attention and the NFL continues to admit, albeit slowly, that there is a link between football and brain injury, concussion policies and procedures will be taken more seriously and people will stop to consider to effects of games such as football on the brains of developing kids.
Hearn sums it up succinctly in seven words:
“These are people’s lives we’re talking about.”