A rainbow of wires streams across the table as University of the Fraser Valley kinesiology instructor Michael Gaetz whispers “Breathe . . . perfect” and the bulky teen stares ahead, unblinking.
The test, taking place in a small room at UFV’s Chilliwack campus at Canada Education Park, is more than an exercise in meditation – it’s part of an ongoing study placing local athletes head and shoulders above the rest when dealing with the increasingly troublesome world of concussions.
Led by Dr. Gaetz and involving football players at Chilliwack’s G.W. Graham middle/secondary school, the study is built on baseline testing – measuring students’ physical and mental capacities before they suffer concussions, not just after.
“It’s the only way to get a sense of where the student is starting from,” Gaetz says.
Memory, attention, reaction and processing time are all recorded using delicate sensors inserted through cloth skull caps before and after vigorous stationary bike sessions.
Balance is also tested, as are cognitive abilities using a standardized computer test with ties to Harvard University used by NHL teams during “quiet room” consultations following potential on-ice concussions.
Armed with that information, G.W. Graham Grizzlies football staff can immediately determine if a player suffers a concussion during a game or practice by issuing a series of sideline tests, and measuring results against his or her baseline information gathered at UFV – potentially eliminating the chance of a secondary (and often more severe) injury.
As time passes, tests also determine where a player is in terms of recovery, and what level of physical exercise is appropriate – if any.
“It allows us to say ‘you have a concussion, now let’s manage that,’” explains Gaetz, who is assisted by five UFV student volunteers.
“We’re doing this as a service to the community . . . It doesn’t cost G.W. Graham school anything.”
The Grizzlies have embraced the program with open arms.
“It immediately put us in the spotlight in the province, and now all high school teams are trying to find a way to follow us,” says athletic director Jake Mouritzen, adding that 90 per cent of his 100 athletes were already tested by early July ahead of fall’s football season.
“We’ve been really blessed and very grateful to UFV and Dr. Gaetz for involving us in this program . . . it’s absolutely world class.”
Gaetz’s involvement began shortly after local doctor Josh Greggain starting looking into how concussions plague young athletes in the spring of 2012. Serving as the Grizzlies’ medical director alongside head coach Laurie Smith, Greggain needed a partner for concussion research.
Combing through UFV’s website for student assistance, he eventually contacted kinesiology program head Chris Bertram.
“He said, ‘Not me, but I’ve got your guy,’” Greggain recalls.
And along came Gaetz, who made concussions the subject of his doctoral thesis while studying at Simon Fraser University.
With UFV’s new Chilliwack campus opening so close to G.W. Graham, the partnership was a no-brainer.
“This is what community partnerships are all about,” Greggain said, calling Gaetz’s research “absolutely phenomenal work.”
Greggain says the relatively short period of collection means data is not yet conclusive when understanding whether concussions are more damaging to younger people. That said, he adds, “We think (youth concussion prevention and treatment) is more important than with adults. Cognitive ability needs to be at its highest during high school and college.”
While Grizzlies players allow Gaetz to gather information for his concussion research, he says the program – above all else – is simply another way UFV’s connection expands beyond campus walls.
“It’s one way we can help ensure the community is looked after, now and in the future.”