PDT Content Manager
Portsmouth sophomore offensive lineman Gage Phipps lined up across from his defensive teammates during a live session of practice Sept. 13, 2012. The play called for him to pull to the left of the center, kicking out a defensive foe to open a running lane. The collision featured the usual gridiron crack of pads and muscle slamming into each other, but what rang out like a broken bell’s toll, was a warning of Phipps’ decline from well-being.
Despite not having a helmet-to-helmet impact, Phipps felt dazed. He was recovering from an illness and didn’t think much of how he was suffering from headaches. The day before he did some hard hitting and chalked up his soreness to being back from an ankle injury and a sinus issue.
Phipps was slated to start against Minford that Friday night and was undeterred by his pain. He was a promising in-line blocking presence and was itching to get back on the field, giving little concern to the root of the headaches and the undertow of risk that came with them.
Because of his prior sinus and throat problems, Phipps was scheduled for a strep throat test with Dr. Greg Hudson of Christ Care Pediatrics in South Shore, Ky. before Friday’s contest.
“Gage had been sick for a few days with a sore throat. He was not hit in the head, and that is another misconception right there,” Gage Phipps’ mother, Linda Phipps said. “He was hit in the upper part of his chest as a lineman. He came to the sidelines and had some headaches. We chalked it up, of course, to the sinus and sore throat stuff and so did everybody else.”
At his pediatrician’s appointment, Dr. Hudson asked Gage Phipps to describe his symptoms and the 16-year-old noted the pain he was feeling around the crown of his head.
“He told him, ‘I’m having these headaches right here on the top of my head.’ He (Hudson) zeroed in on it and asked when the headaches started,” Linda Phipps said. “Gage goes, ‘Actually in practice, but I didn’t get hit in the head.’ We weren’t even thinking concussion. It was then that his doctor immediately said that he can’t play in the game tomorrow night until he got further testing.”
It was the last thing the Phipps family expected, but it would become their central concern to this day.
The next step
The headaches persisted, worsened. Other symptoms began creeping into his daily routine. Dr. Hudson sent the mother and son to the Human Motion Vitality Center at Our Lady of Bellefonte in Ashland, Ky. for more tests.
At the center, Gage and Linda Phipps met with Physical Therapist Wes Lauderback, who has been working in the field since 2001 and currently sees all concussion patients that come through the HMVC.
“They have an excellent program, and the guy there, Wes Lauderback really keeps up on the latest on concussions,” Linda Phipps said.
After getting background information on Gage Phipps, Lauderback administered the ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) software to the high school student, which is the most-widely used and scientifically accepted concussion evaluation software available.
“We put them through a test on the computer called ImPACT which is a neurocognitive test,” Lauderback said. “We look at those scores and in an ideal situation, the athlete would have baseline scores they took before the season started, but most of the time we don’t have that. In the absences of a baseline test there are norms for the patient’s age. We use that to help to determine if they are still suffering from the concussion symptoms.”
The test results came back as grim as they could be for Gage Phipps.
“They said after I took the test I was in the bottom one percent,” he said. “That means that if 100 people took it, 99 did way better than me.”
Linda Phipps said it was the second-worst concussion the HMVC had seen.
All of this occurred with the backdrop of NFL players experiencing post-concussion symptoms. Retired linebacker Junior Seau and former Bears safety Dave Duerson both committed suicide within the last two years, donating their brains to researchers.
Researchers from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University determined that both of those deceased men, and other former football players, suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.
The Boston University researchers define CTE as a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. It is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and, eventually, progressive dementia.
Diagnosis of CTE, to date, has only come after the death of those suspected to suffer from it, though recent reports indicate advancement in diagnosis.
The emotional toll
With the national story focused on professional players, Gage Phipps worked twice a week with Lauderback at the HMVC to improve his Post-Concussion Syndrome symptoms. Despite the treatment, symptoms continued to persist and arise. After five weeks of headaches came serious bouts of dizziness.
“For about five to six weeks he would fall in the house,” Linda Phipps said. “His legs would just give out. That rendered him in his bed again.”
Gage Phipps attempted to return to school after taking a sabbatical, but the dizziness, the noise and the risk made it unrealistic.
“He was home-bound as a 16-year-old watching his friends get their driver’s licenses and play sports. Everything just stopped, but everybody else’s life goes on,” Linda Phipps said. “For him to be motionless was terrible for him. You couldn’t really let him go out even walking through Wal-Mart because he would lose his balance. He’s a big guy, you can’t catch him. Unless he could just be sent over to a friends house to play video games — he was just in a constant spinning. That did not stop until the weekend of Thanksgiving and that’s when all this other stuff started happening.”
The other stuff was a descent into the throes of what Gage Phipps describes as “Major depression.”
“He went back to school for a couple of days and boom. He spiraled down to the depression, panic attacks, agitation and we have been to so many doctors, so many medications, them just trying to help,” Linda Phipps said.
The doctors told Gage Phipps that the concussion caused a change in serotonin processing in his brain. The chemical changes in his head left him in a constant battle with his emotions.
“It’s hard to get myself out of bed. I really don’t want to be around anybody to tell the truth. It’s kind of hard to be around my friends, my girlfriend, my family,” Gage Phipps said. “It’s hard to do anything anymore. Every day is a struggle to have to get up and go. It’s the small things that could make me extremely agitated. It could be as small as someone chewing gum obnoxiously, it just makes me go nuts.”
Support of the community
The symptoms have kept Gage Phipps out of school for months. Rather than sitting idly as the doctors search for answers, he engaged in an innovative arrangement with Portsmouth City Schools so that his education would continue.
“We are now doing an online school thing through PHS so I am able to keep up on all my work,” Gage Phipps said. “When I’m not doing school work, I’m just trying to piece my life back together.”
Having the support of the teachers and administrators has eased the recovery process for the Gage Phipps. The mother and son both noted that the coaching staff and physical trainers did everything by the book, and deserve no blame for what Linda Phipps called a unique case.
“We are so appreciative of the coaching staff at PHS. Coach (Curt) Clifford has kept in contact with us wanting to know every little thing that has happened with Gage,” Linda Phipps said. “Even upon his retirement, he said ‘Anything you want, anything you need to talk I’m there.’ I just talked to him this past week.”
Gage Phipps described the now-retired coach as his “Guardian Angel.”
Clifford said the situation is one of the saddest he has experienced in his extended coaching career and could not recall another instance that compares to the severity of Gage Phipps’ trauma.
“He’s one of my kids, and you take care of your kids. It’s not just about the (wins) and the (losses),” Clifford said. “When you have a kid in that situation, you always give him the motivation. You don’t want to paint a bleak picture for any kid. I told him we would get him back after waiting to see what the doctor says. The next thing I know, they find out what they found out, and I was devastated. I love that kid. Besides being a great kid, he’s everything you look for in a football player.”
Linda Phipps cited the prayers and support of people throughout the community and a reliance on faith to see her son through the ordeal.
“We have relied on the Lord to see Gage through,” Linda Phipps said.
Gage Phipps’ treatment continues locally with counselors. Linda Phipps says the process of finding the correct treatment is ongoing. Much of the progress is based around emerging research on concussions, and that is something she says everyone associated with athletics should look into.
“There is more and more that keeps coming out with concussions,” Linda Phipps said. “I would suggest that parents, coaches, sports trainers all-around consistently keep up on the latest news about concussions. It keeps changing. If they keep up on it, players will be better protected.”
In search of extended treatment options, Gage Phipps has been going through tests at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus under the supervision of Dr. Lance Governale, a pediatric neurosurgeon.
Linda Phipps said there are follow up tests to be conducted, and a closer examination of the impacted area of her son’s brain. In the meantime, both Gage Phipps and his mother tell their story as a way to ensure it never happens to another athlete.
“I just want people to know, we didn’t even think that I had a concussion. I didn’t pass out, I didn’t have memory loss or any of that,” Gage Phipps said. “The stereotype that you just got your bell rung — people need to know that you do not need the dramatic symptoms to have one. They told me I could have had numerous ones before, they don’t even think this was my first. I want people to know that it doesn’t have to be huge.
“Everyone from parents to student to staff (need) to be more educated about what can happen. So many things go overlooked. Players themselves — even me, I told my doctor lets just shove it under the rug — we want to get back out there. We are going to lie and try to get back out there. We need to be more educated on these things because if we are not, we can end up dying.”
The potential for a concussion-related death comes from Second-Impact Syndrome, according to Lauderback. He said a second concussion without a proper recovery can cause permanent cognitive deficits or, in some cases, result in death. Because of that, the physical trainer highly recommends baseline cognitive tests for every football program.
“Absolutely, it makes it a lot easier to try and figure out when the athlete is ready to go back,” Lauderback said. “We want to be sure the athlete doesn’t go back too soon because that can result in pretty serious problems.”
Linda Phipps urges parents to be knowledgeable of concussions, and clarified that her son’s situation was one that could not have been predicted or necessarily prevented.
“This is big. This is huge. Parents need to know. It’s something that people need to be aware of,” she said. “We just want to make sure that, in Gage’s case, nobody neglected their duties at the school. His was a different case.”
Gage Phipps does not want to see a sequel to his story.
“I just want to make sure everyone is more cautious with this, because I do not want anyone going through what I am going through,” he said.
For more information on concussions and their symptoms visit www.cdc.gov/concussion. For more information on CTE visit www.bu.edu/cste.
Bob Strickley can be reached at 353-3101, ext. 296, or firstname.lastname@example.org.