The Hidden Injury: Meet Ethan Hafner

Sterling youth faces obstacles associated with concussions

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Ethan Hafner is a relatively soft-spoken kid. But when he feared he wouldn’t pass the seventh grade, Ethan, 12, had to say something.

Ethan’s tale started Feb. 11, in Fulton, when he took a nasty spill going for a rebound during a basketball tournament.

“You’d need to hear it; it was horrible,” his father, Craig, said of the sound of Ethan hitting the floor.

His mom, Beth, said she “heard some kind of animal shriek coming out of Ethan” when he fell.

Today, Ethan remembers little of the injury.

His dad, a teacher at Fulton Elementary School, vividly recalls sitting Ethan down in his classroom shortly after the spill.

Ethan couldn’t see anything on the walls. He couldn’t walk straight.

So Ethan’s parents took him to Morrison Family Clinic, where he was diagnosed with a mild concussion. He returned to St. Mary’s School on Tuesday, 3 days after suffering the injury.

But Ethan’s symptoms were anything but mild.

The next day, his second back at school, Craig got a call from the school.

“The nurse told me [Ethan] was in horrible pain,” he said.

“She said on a scale of 1 to 10, he was on an 8, pain-wise,” Beth said.

“He was at a 7 on Saturday,” Craig said.

And so began a frightening journey for Ethan that 4 months later still hasn’t ended.

Second opinion

The Hafners quickly got Ethan in to see their family doctor, Joseph Welty, at KSB Hospital. Ethan’s CT scan came back negative, but a neurological exam confirmed he’d suffered a concussion.

But Welty took a much more aggressive step with Ethan – forbidding him from doing anything that could put a strain on his brain. That included watching TV ... and attending school.

“This is something I feel is relatively new – the brain rest,” Welty said. “You think about an injured arm or an injured leg. What do you do with it? You rest it.”

Welty put Ethan on a graded return to classes. He began with half days and slowly graduated to full days.

Unfortunately, Ethan suffered setbacks and had to return to quiet rest at home a few times. All being told, it took him 6 weeks to return to school full-time. After his second setback, he let his parents know that his inability to remember little things scared him, as did the thought of having to repeat seventh grade.

“When he said something, that’s what really shocked us,” Craig said.

Teachers’ aid

The Hafners sat down with the St. Mary’s faculty, who they say went to extraordinary lengths to keep Ethan on track with his school work.

They allowed him to eat outside, away from the boisterous cafeteria that could trigger excruciating headaches.

Ethan was allowed to skip the actual dissection of frogs in class – the smell was too much for him. Instead, he learned how to do the dissection on a computer.

His math teacher met with him during her spring break to keep him on course.

“They can get far behind in a very short period,” Welty said of students. “Ethan’s case really points out the team approach we have to take with this injury.”

The team effort seems to have worked. Ethan will be in the eighth grade this fall, he made the honor roll, and his performance in the social studies play was a knockout. He played two parts, and remembered all of his lines.

He’s currently participating in Newman’s boys basketball camp.

“It was hard,” Ethan said. “The hardest thing to stop doing was sports.”

The big test will be sitting out Junior Comets football this fall.

“We told him to let his brain heal for a year,” Craig said. “We want him to be able to speak and remember and think in his 20s and 30s” rather than “not be able to because you played football when you were in eighth grade.”

Up next

Ethan’s story puts emphasis on the importance of understanding the causes and effects of concussions.

His injury in February might not have been his first concussion. Last June, Ethan was drilled in the left eye by a pitch. His momentary loss of consciousness led Welty to assume he was concussed then, as well.

Second-impact syndrome is a hot-button term in sports and medicine. It occurs when an athlete suffers another blow to the head after returning to action before fully recovering from a first concussion. It can lead to catastrophic effects, including permanent brain damage and death.

SIS is the focus of a mega-lawsuit filed by more than 2,000 former NFL stars, who claim the league hid information that linked football-related head trauma to permanent brain injuries.

But while football is the sport most often discussed, Ethan’s case is a reminder that concussions are not just a football injury.

In fact, Ethan’s great uncle, Newman Athletic Director and longtime football coach Mike Papoccia, has suffered two concussions – both while playing basketball.

And no two concussions are the same. Numerous studies have revealed that, because of the brain’s ongoing development, there’s a direct correlation between age and severity of concussions.

We’ll examine many misperceptions of concussions during the next installment of the series, which we plan to publish June 23.

Later in the series, we’ll look at youth football and the lack of athletic trainers in high school sports.

And we’ll share plenty of local athletes’ takes on concussions they’ve endured and recovered from with help.

Returning to action is the first of many steps after a concussion. For Welty, seeing a patient go on to live a healthy life is the ultimate goal.

“That’s very rewarding to see these kids grow up and turn into good citizens,” he said. “It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of this line of work.”

The Hidden Injury revealed

What is it?

• A concussion is the most common type of traumatic brain injury, caused by a forceful blow to the head or body and often resulting in unconsciousness.

How many occur annually?

• An estimated 300,000 concussions are caused by sports alone every year in the U.S.

What are the symptoms?

• Headache
• Blurred vision
• Dizziness and nausea
• Difficulty focusing
• Sleepiness
• Sensitivity to light and noise
• Uncharacteristic emotions or mood swings

What do I do if I suspect a concussion?

• Call the CGH Sports Concussion Program hotline – 888-721-BUMP (2867)

Coming up in the series

June 23: We go mythbusting, dispelling such misperceptions as concussions being strictly a football injury.

July 7: Athletic trainers – can schools afford not to have one?

July 21: Youth football – how soon is too soon for young athletes to be tackling?

Aug. 4: A new season on the horizon – Final observations and a chance to tell the stories of local athletes who overcame concussions last season.