Local teens share stories of sports-related brain injuries

December 29, 2019
Alexis Fitzpatrick-Herald-Mail Media

When Payton Downie was warming up for a travel volleyball tournament in February 2018, she suffered two accidental back-to-back blows to the head, causing her to black out.

Nearly two years later, the now-senior at South Hagerstown High School still feels the effects of the concussion she sustained, and likely will for years to come.

Payton, 17, is not alone in her struggles, even in her neighborhood at St. James Village south of Hagerstown.

Washington County Technical High School senior Hannah Parmenter, 17, was hit twice in the head by a soccer goal during a windy practice in November 2013 and 13-year-old Dominic Runfola, an eighth grader at E. Russell Hicks Middle, suffered a concussion after getting hit playing football in October 2018.

The Downie, Parmenter and Runfola families have since formed a support group of sorts to help navigate the complicated medical, physical, social and emotional repercussions of having a child who suffered brain trauma.

“All three of these kids had an injury that wasn’t visible, so you didn’t feel like they were accounted for because it wasn’t a cast on them, it wasn’t crutches and it wasn’t a wheelchair,” Lisa Downie, Payton’s mother, said. “I feel like all three of them probably experienced people thinking it was made up or [they were] taking advantage of the system.”

Following Payton, Hannah and Dominic’s injuries, all three felt nauseous, had trouble sleeping and became forgetful, along with deeper issues, such as feelings of isolation and depression.

Lisa Downie said Payton experienced panic attacks and pain in her head and eyes that caused her to be sensitive to noise, lights and technology such as computers and phones. In class, she had to revert back to using books, pencils and paper and spent a lot of time in the office, where she said the noise was less intrusive.

The aversions put a strain on her school work when she was even able to attend. Payton missed more than 40 days of school her sophomore year following her injury, but still managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA.

She was put on a modified learning plan called a 504, as were Hannah and Dominic, to accommodate their limitations.

Downie said Payton’s sleep and other activities had to be monitored so closely, the family reverted back to a “toddler schedule” for the teenager.

Months after her accident, Payton still felt sick, including experiencing vertigo, a feeling of dizziness, and whiplash, a neck injury, over that summer.

Eventually, the Downies sought treatment in Baltimore, where there were doctors who specialized in treating concussions and post-concussion syndrome, a complex disorder with multiple symptoms which can last for months following a brain injury.

“It seemed like they spoke our language and we weren’t crazy,” Downie said.

Even after getting cleared to return to volleyball in August 2018, Payton quit the school team due to illness. She also said she pulled away from her teammates and friends during that time as it was hard for them to understand what she was going through.

Payton finally had nerve surgery on Dec. 28, 2018. She was cleared to return to volleyball in April 2019, but remains careful of her ongoing treatment.

A big step in understanding the social and emotional effects of Payton’s injury came from Hannah, whose experience years before was similar.

In sixth grade at the time, Hannah missed around three months of school following her injury. When she returned in seventh grade, she found it difficult to connect with old friends and new people.

“I felt so alone, not only with the head injury and nobody understanding, but I didn’t have close friendships really. I wasn’t making those close friendships because I was constantly in the office, staying after school with teachers. I would sit in the hallway … because it was quieter,” Hannah said.

She too suffered from post-concussion syndrome, saying even a year and a half later, the concussion “still felt fresh.”

Hannah had nerve surgery Dec. 3, 2015, and was out of school for a month and a half to recover. She said she began to feel like her old self, but will be on medication for the rest of her life to help with inflammation and insomnia.

Unlike Payton and Hannah, Dominic did not immediately receive treatment following his injury as he didn’t think it was that serious. Several days later, however, he was found swaying in the hallway at school and was taken to see a doctor.

He was out of school for around 40 days total, but his symptoms didn’t go away.

“He couldn’t ride in the car because he was vomiting. He had to have earplugs because it was too noisy. He had to have sunglasses because of light,” Kim Runfola, Dominic’s mother, said.

Dominic’s demeanor changed as well, much more than the typical teenage irritability, according to Runfola. She said at one point, she was afraid she would lose him to his depression.

“I don’t care what kind of hit you have. You could have been in a car accident and experienced the same thing. We validate the car accident as being severe, but being hit as a kid can be major,” Runfola said.

After getting a CAT scan, Dominic was eventually recommended vestibular therapy to improve his balance and reduce problems related to dizziness. He has not been cleared to return to football.

Runfola, who teaches at Antietam Academy, said she was frustrated at the lack of a concussion care plan at Dominic’s school, but said most of his teachers worked with his limitations.

Downie, who works at Hagerstown Community College and Grace Academy, said public and private schools need to be able to handle students who have experienced brain trauma.

Both Payton and Hannah attended Washington County Public Schools and Grace Academy following their injuries.

Runfola and Downie advised others experiencing similar situations to not wait to get care for their child, seek a second opinion and not be afraid to question decisions from doctors. They said to be a persistent advocate for one’s child, and to teach children to be advocates for themselves since most people do not fully understand how severe brain injuries can be.

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