Police working to stay ahead of concussions
When a Chesapeake police recruit suffered a concussion after hitting his head during a January training exercise, he didn't return to work right away. It took four days, in fact, for all the symptoms of the concussion to disappear and for him to be cleared.
Even then, he had to progressively return to training.
For the first time, recruits in the latest class at the Chesapeake Police Academy were monitored daily for head injuries and, if they were hurt, had to meet specific goals before returning. This was among several changes the department implemented after recognizing the danger of concussions.
"These things occurred all the time, and we just didn't recognize it," said Lt. John Landfair, the academy's director. "Now we're cognizant of it and cautious."
The death of Norfolk police recruit John Kohn in 2010 during defensive tactics training didn't spark the Chesapeake police into action. It bolstered efforts already under way to catch concussions early on.
Kohn failed to regain consciousness after a series of blows to the head from an instructor and colliding with another recruit. Two days earlier, he had suffered a head blow that knocked him down and hecomplained of headaches and difficulty seeing, according to a lawsuit filed in Norfolk Circuit Court. But Kohn didn't report the symptoms to his instructors, according to police records reviewed by The Virginian-Pilot.
Even before Kohn's death, Dr. Heidi Kulberg, Chesapeake's deputy health director, had begun working with her city's police to educate officers about concussions.
"I had an inkling there wasn't as much awareness at the academy as there could be of signs and symptoms of concussions," she said.
When she talked with one of the training sergeants, Mike Cole, about concussions, they both decided more education was needed. A few weeks later, Kohn died, and the sergeant called Kulberg.
"We both looked at it and said: Oh my gosh. Let's step up our game," she said. "Something horrible happened in Norfolk, and let's make sure this doesn't happen in Chesapeake."
One of the biggest changes is that recruits no longer receive deliberate head blows, said Cole, the academy's assistant director. Recruits are still taught to protect themselves against hits to the face. But now the punches are simulated or an instructor will shout that someone's hitting them and they have to respond by blocking.
All recruits wear padded foam helmets, but that doesn't necessarily protect them from head injuries.
"It doesn't matter what kind of equipment you're wearing," Cole said. "It's the brain jostling around your cranium, banging up against your skull. That causes the concussion. A lot of people didn't know that."
In Norfolk, the Police Department stopped using intentional head strikes a year ago in the wake of Kohn's death. Medical professionals also began to teach instructors and recruits about head trauma, and defensive tactics training was limited to one- or two-hour increments to reduce fatigue-related injuries.
"We do a lot less each day," said Chris Amos, a police spokesman in Norfolk. "It's spread out over the entire length of the academy. That has done wonders for the academy since we changed it."
He said recruits are not getting injured as often and are finding it easier to retain what they learn.
After training, instructors also ask recruits if they're OK and whether they suffered any head injuries. Another change: Recruits are paired. If one doesn't report a head injury, his or her buddy might be able to spot it, Amos said.
"After the Kohn incident, concussions are at the forefront of our minds," he said.
Virginia Beach's police academy never used head strikes and has not implemented recent changes to its defensive tactics training, said Grazia Moyers, a police spokeswoman. Suffolk and Portsmouth police recruits train at the Hampton Roads Criminal Justice Academy in Newport News, and it could not be determined late last week whether there had been any changes there.
In Chesapeake, recruits and instructors now undergo the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool, or SCAT2, before defensive tactics training. The SCAT2 tests thinking skills, concentration, recollection, balance and coordination.
Kulberg suggested recruits and instructors be tested beforehand so medics can compare post-injury results with their normal behavior to catch any differences.
For the latest academy class, whose members graduated March 23, Kulberg performed the test on the recruit who was diagnosed with a concussion. When she determined he was still suffering symptoms, she ordered him to rest so his brain could heal. That meant no texting, video games or physical activity.
Cole called the recruit daily over four days to see if he still had a headache. When the answer was finally no, Cole met with the recruit to see him walk and eventually run. When he was symptom-free for 24 hours, the recruit returned to the academy.
The academy also has paramedics on hand during training to observe. Kulberg said they might notice things an instructor could miss. Having paramedics present also means that whenever recruits are injured, it's possible to more quickly assess whether they need further treatment.
Kulberg also talked to recruits and instructors about concussions and stressed how important it is for them to report head injuries, not conceal them.
"I wanted to make sure recruits know it's not acceptable," Kulberg said. "This is their health, and potentially, their life."
Veronica Gonzalez, 757-222-5208, email@example.com