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.
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.