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A Mother's Intuition

Comments [5]

Victoria Tilney McDonough, BrainLine

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A Mother’s Intuition

Drew Rickerson, #15.


After Jean Rickerson’s son sustained a brain injury while playing football, she took the ball and ran with it — raising awareness on neighborhood and national levels.

Around 6pm on Friday nights in Sequim, Washington, the collective adrenaline starts to pump. Cars around the high school stadium are parked at all angles, a herky-jerky pattern of mosaics. Hoodies are zipped against the fall air, sodas snap open, coffee and cocoa steam from thermos cups. Families find their favorite spots on the bleachers, friends hug, teenagers whisper and shriek with new gossip. Then, the pulse quickens as the players storm the field. The stadium lights beam yellow and promising above the night.

Friday night lights

Sequim is a football town. If you play, you’re a hero. If you are the parent or teacher or friend of a player, you have clout. Some towns are just like that. Jean Rickerson is a Sequim football mother. Her son, Drew, is a highly acclaimed high school quarterback. But the nature of her role as a football mother changed one night in 2008 when Drew, then 16, took an intense helmet-to-helmet hit.

“I videotaped all of Drew’s games, but that night was too foggy,” says Jean. And because of the fog, she didn’t see the hit clearly. After the collision, Drew played for another 15 minutes. He threw a touchdown pass and then scored a touchdown. As his teammates ran crazy with excitement, he tossed the ball to the ref and staggered to the bench. “There was something odd about the way he ran off the field. I suddenly had a sinking feeling,” says Jean.

Drew sat on the bench for the remaining 45 minutes of the game. Jean watched her son through the fog and the rows of bobbing heads, but his back was to her and she couldn’t see his face. He kept dropping his helmet, leaning sideways. He seemed to have no interest in the game — his game, his team. “I will never forgive myself for watching him, knowing in my gut that something was not right, and not doing anything about it,” she says.

When the game was over, Drew stood up and turned. Jean saw his face and knew immediately that something was dreadfully wrong. His eyes looked empty. During those 45 minutes, he had not been able to tell anyone he was hurt because he couldn’t speak, and he had started to lose his vision and his hearing. He hadn’t lost consciousness, but everything was blurry and confusing, jiggling sounds and blob-like shapes behind diaphanous glass.

Jean ran to get the rescue squad who checked him out. Despite his unevenly dilated pupils and his inability to speak, the EMTs said they didn’t think he needed any help much less transport to the ER. His coaches waved and told him they’d see him for practice at 8 a.m. the next morning. Jean became angry. “What would you do if your son were in this condition?” she asked the EMTs. She insisted they take Drew to the ER. So, two-and-a-half hours after the collision on the field, he was at the hospital, a delay that would have been disastrous for some seriously concussed players.

After an evaluation and CT scan, Drew was cleared to go home. The doctors said he’d be good as new. He’d be back at school Monday. He’d be out there on the field leading the Sequim Wolves. “We believed the doctors,” said Jean. “We didn’t know enough not to; we didn’t know anything.”

Cleared to play, again

For the Rickersons, especially Drew, the weekend passed like a Fellini film. Nothing felt real. Nothing felt normal, predictable. Drew would stand up, see stars, and fall back down onto the sofa or his bed. He slept constantly. Jean thought a short walk and some fresh air would help her son feel better. But he could barely make it a block or two. TV and video games revealed the fact that Drew had little-to-no short-term memory and no analytical thinking skills. “Things were obviously not right with Drew, but what did I know?” says Jean. “I was terrified all weekend but held those feelings in check because the doctors were not concerned. I had no idea how serious all of this was.”

By Monday, Jean was panicked. During an office visit, their family doctor told her not to be concerned. Again, Drew was cleared to play and return to school. She left the appointment and found another doctor, seeking someone more educated. They couldn’t get in to see that next doctor for another two days. After that second appointment —now five days later — Drew couldn’t move his limbs. He was rushed to a trauma center two hours away in Seattle where CT and MRI scans both came back negative. We were not given any instructions as to what to avoid, or any other after-care advice. We were on our own, again.”

Jean cried all the way home. “For the first time, I realized I had absolutely no idea what to do to help my son,” she says. “I felt I had exhausted possibilities on the peninsula for care, and if the trauma center in Seattle didn’t offer hope, I was lost. I was my son’s only hope and I was completely uneducated. It was a desperate time.”

In town, at school, on the football field, and even with the rest of the Rickerson family, Drew was expected back. He was the star quarterback, after all. He was Drew. Jean wondered if she was being hysterical. Was she being reactive, over-protective? She doubted herself, but in the end, her gut prevailed and Drew did not play. She could live with being the hated mother in a town where football is revered above almost all else.

Bleak times

The next ten weeks were bleak. Drew stayed home from school for two weeks then returned part-time. He would attend classes from 8-10 a.m. only to return home exhausted with no recollection of what he had learned. “These were very scary weeks,” says Jean. “I didn’t know if this was going to be permanent. Would Drew be able to go to college? Play sports again? Have a job? Function in the world?”

BrainLine. Photograph, courtesy of the Rickerson family.

Comments [5]

It's good that brain concussions/sports concussions are finally being talked about.  I sustained the equivalent of a brain concussion at birth and my parents intentionally hid that fact from me;  the concussion was diagnosed many years later as Inattentive ADHD/Organic Brain Syndrome.  I had to independently seek out profession help to have the situation clarified as to why I was having subtle neurological difficulties with paying attention/short term memory vs other children my own age.  Brain injuries/brain concussions/Inattentive ADHD are not a joke.

Jul 14th, 2014 4:38pm

My son suffered a severe TBI at age 7. He is going to be 13 soon. He will never be the BMX racer, soccer playing fun loving kid he once was. His TBI was "healed" as much as it could be and things would calm down his neurologist said. But, last July, the TBI bit back and my son had 14 seizures in a small amount of time. Now diagnosed with Epilepsy due to TBI, the memory problems, coordination issues, and social anxiety is back and on some days, worse than it was after the initial TBI. These hits to the head are NO JOKE. Get your kids checked...even when they swear they are fine. Better safe than sorry. TBI isn't a curable thing. It's a life changer that will last a lifetime.

May 5th, 2014 11:46am

I was in the same place this past football season. my son took a hit and blacked out on field. Only for a sec. and was brought to the sideline. He knew what was going on so trainer just thought he maybe got his bell rung. Next day he had bad day in school and really bad headache. Pick him up and took him to er and he had a concussion. He ended up being homebound for 6 weeks and slowly getting back into school. Dr and Me have talked to him he has took 4 head shots over 3 years. Dont think football is his sport, he needs to play baseball and basketball. Casmith

Apr 15th, 2014 1:20pm

When I was readin this I thought I was reading our story. My son was hurt playing hockey when he was 12 and he is 17 now and still not attending school full- time and still having severe migraines. He went from straight As and we just got him an IEPER at school. It breaks my heart everyday he doesn't get to live life like he once knew it. Thanks for the inspiration. Everyday is a struggle for our family.

Apr 15th, 2014 11:47am

Always touches me. Please contact me Ann

Aug 13th, 2013 2:19am

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