GREENWICH, Conn. – While playing soccer for the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Greenwich’s Kendall Calcano jumped to head the ball, just as she had done many times before. But the resulting concussion ended her soccer career in the fall of 2010.
Calcano, who stayed in the game and played the entire second half, is not alone in suffering head trauma in soccer. The sport has the second highest incidence of concussions among high school sports. Only football players suffer more concussions among teenage athletes.
Now, Calcano spreads the word on the dangers of concussions. She will be part of a panel to talk Thursday, Oct. 11, at Saugatuck Elementary School on Concussion Safety Night. She is part of a panel organized by Norwalk’s Katherine Snedaker, who runs a concussion education website, and the Westport PAL.
Calcano endured 15 months of problems from the concussion and still experiences symptoms, including headaches, neck and back pain, lack of focus, concentration issues and slowed processing time. It has affected her academically and socially. She tried medication, neuro-biofeedback and hyperbaric oxygen treatments, seeing marginal gains and setbacks before finally feeling more like herself late last year.
Fortunately for Calcano, now a junior at Sacred Heart, she can still play sports. She was the captain of the junior varsity tennis team and also plays squash. But soccer and lacrosse, another favorite, are out for the rest of her life. The concussion forced her to walk away. “It’s just not worth the risk,’’ Calcano said.
Calcano has vivid recall of the life-altering play. “I remember seeing the ball was really high,’’ she said. “It was really up there.” She was playing defense, and the weather was raw and rainy. “The ball was really heavy,’’ she said. She leaped with her opponent and got her head on the ball. She got bumped in the air and momentarily lost her balance. Instead of heading the ball with her forehead, however, the ball hit her on the side of the head.
“It was a good, clean soccer play,’’ Calcano said. “I didn’t black out or anything. When I got in the car to go home, my neck was sore. I felt like I had a big bruise on my head.”
The effects of the concussion kicked in the next day. She went to school with a headache, and the trainer asked her to see a doctor. Calcano said the physician told her she “got her bell rung” and would probably be better within a week or so.
She missed two weeks of school. Lights hurt, and she took to wearing sunglasses around the house. She took over-the-counter products to reduce headache pain for the next few months and had trouble sleeping.
Her school work also started to slip. “I could vocalize information but couldn’t translate it to tests in multiple choice formats,’’ Calcano said. “I had short-term memory lapses for the remainder of the school year after the concussion. I couldn’t focus, and I couldn’t sit still." She continues to experience those symptoms and has tried several medications. “The meds altered my personality,’’ she said. “As if I didn’t have enough problems, now I wasn’t myself.”
Her post-concussion evaluations showed continued deficiencies since her baseline testing administered by Sacred Heart before the concussion, and she was not cleared to play sports. “I really wanted to play lacrosse,’’ she said. “But any running that involved change of speed or direction caused horrible headaches. The only thing I could do was jog straight ahead.”
She served as manager for the varsity lacrosse team in the spring of 2011 and tried alternative treatments that summer. She traveled daily from Greenwich to Trumbull for treatment but saw little progress. “At that point, my doctors thought I should drop contact sports for good,’’ she said.
When the school year started in the fall of 2011, Calcano said she felt better but was still having focus and processing issues. Fortunately, her memory came back. She started working out in the fall and joined the squash team in November. “I was worried about the lateral movement, but I felt like I was close to being back to myself,’’ Calcano said. “I was so happy to be back playing sports.”
But a part of Calcano still wanted to return to soccer and lacrosse. “Sometimes it’s still hard for me to walk past the soccer and lacrosse field,’’ she said. “I still have my shin guards under my bed. It wasn’t until this past tennis season when I finally accepted the fact that I made the right decision.”
Girls soccer is not generally regarded as a dangerous sport. But Calcano knows otherwise. “A lot of people say soccer is not a contact sport,’’ she said. “But until you’re on the field, you can’t understand how dangerous it can be. It’s so easy to be thrown off balance and land on the ground. I thought maybe this wasn’t my first concussion. Maybe I had some before, and I didn’t know about them.”
Her message is not that young athletes should quit playing soccer. She does, however, want to educate people, especially young girls, that concussions are serious business.
“I’d hate to see another young girl go through what I’ve had to go through,’’ Calcano said. “Playing with a concussion isn’t being tough, it’s irresponsible. It’s not something to mess around with.”