15 Dec 2020

Former rugby player describes struggle with brain injuries after concussions

From Checkpoint, 5:47 pm on 15 December 2020

A former rugby player with a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated impact traumas wants other players to be fully aware of the risk, and for New Zealand Rugby to do more to help those who have it.

In the UK former players suffering brain injuries are taking legal action, claiming rugby authorities failed to protect them from concussions.

Ross Devlin told Checkpoint he suffered multiple concussions playing club rugby from the 1990s into the 2000s and noticed changes in his personality and behaviour.

Following another knock in a car accident in 2017 he went looking for answers.

In August an ACC appointed neuropsychologist diagnosed Ross with potential chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE].

A definitive diagnosis is only possible with a brain autopsy after someone dies - but it can cause dementia-like symptoms including memory loss, mood swings and depression.

Devlin said it was extremely hard to get acknowledgement of his symptoms.

"It took about two years just to convince my GP that there was more than just concussion going on.

"It was a battle. At times you feel let down completely by all those around you. The only person that I could turn to was my wife, and even my own family didn't understand what I was trying to fight for.

"I had a lot of people tell me, 'what are you looking for', you know, 'what do you want?' And I said, 'all I want is for my family to be looked after when I can't look after them'."

Symptoms emerged through his 20s, Devlin said.

"Basically I would have verbal arguments, it started out that I'd just be aggressive on the rugby field, and as soon as I got off the rugby field that was fine.

"When it came apparent that there was actually something else going on, my wife was talking to me about depression and being angry at home. And my teammates were saying, on the rugby field, saying 'calm down'.

"That's when I sort of started to know that there was something more than just bad behaviour.

"I went from enjoying going to the Wellington Sevens on both days, to not being able to sit in the crowd on a Saturday.

"I couldn't cope with the noise, I couldn't cope with the crowd… I couldn't go to concerts. It was too loud, there were too many people around.

"Later on into my 30s, it came to the point where the only way I could motivate myself was through anger."

Devlin said he's worked as a tradesman and a manager, but cannot do those jobs anymore.

He has had issues with memory loss since his first concussions as teenager, he said.

"Part of that has come back because I've worked on memory and talking to my family."

He loved the physicality of playing rugby, and was playing as much as possible when he was younger.

"So if I had a concussion or suspected concussion I would… push the boundaries and I'd be back playing by the end of that three weeks [stand-down period] and that's still the medical perceived concussion recovery at this stage.

"I'd just downplay the fact that I was concussed at all. There was a game in 2002. A club final where I was concussed early into the first half, within the first seven minutes of the game.

"I actually remember waking up at the end of the game and just not understanding why we were down by three points.

"I walked off the field awake, but I played the whole game asleep. I've seen video footage of that and you could not tell that I was concussed or not in control that whole game."

Devlin said he has had six full knockouts playing rugby, not including sub-concussive knocks.

Those incidents were followed by stand-down periods, but he said he would be straight back to playing as soon as he could.

"There's nothing that could have kept me off the rugby field, at that time you're motivated just to play rugby.

"I do take responsibility for part of it, and that's why I've come forward.

"I take responsibility for my actions, now that I know. And the education around concussion has changed in the last three years. But to be honest, it doesn't go far enough.

"Who do I think should take some more responsibility is actually the medical side are well behind in what they're suggesting is okay. Three weeks, 23 days for an under 16, I believe is not long enough for a concussion.

"Concussion is brain damage in my opinion."

New Zealand Rugby needs to be listening to international advice, Devlin told Checkpoint, not just from the European Medical Council.

"There is information that has gone right through the NFL that has changed the NFL. Why can't our professional companies look into some of the stuff that's gone on there?

"Even the NFL refused this information for years and years, knowing they were damaging people. They still changed."

Devlin said he has not had any success talking to New Zealand Rugby (NZR) about his experience and the struggles of former players with brain injuries.

"NZRU will not openly discuss anything about concussions or brain injuries to any member of the public, in my opinion. I've tried on a number of occasions; I've even tried, thinking that I was a player so I should be able to go through the players' union.

"They don't want to hear anything negative against the sport. It's a closed shop to discussing anything that would open them up to being liable for anything.

"I think they absolutely do not only need to do more, but they need to start making some rules for the people they employ.

"Not only the people they employ but the people in the club scene, they need to be looked after. You don't just look out for player by saying, 'here have three weeks off and don't do too much.

"You actually need to support them. And that's where medical support needs to catch up with the science of it."

Ex-All Black joins legal action against World Rugby over brain injuries

Devlin's comments come as former All Black Neemia Tialata joins the legal action against World Rugby over brain injuries suffered while playing the game.

His lawyer Tim Castle wants New Zealand Rugby to release any information they have about the effects of concussion since World Rugby introduced new head injury protocols in 2015.

NZ Rugby doing all it can - specialist physician

Checkpoint heard earlier from specialist emergency physician Dr John Bonning, who said NZR is doing all it can to provide safe playing conditions, but players need to know there's a risk in contact sports.

"There are doctors pitchside at all levels of rugby from inter-provincial, national provincial championship onwards, and including all Super games and including all test matches.

So we have at least two trained doctors, emergency physicians, general practitioners who have gone through specific explicit training with NZR.

"We do what's called the Head Injury Assessment One, that's done pitchside, and then they have to have their second assessment and third assessments done before return to play.

"Concussion is still slightly poorly understood in terms of why some people are so severely affected and why they're not.

"People need to go into [contact sports] with their eyes open and understand if you're symptomatic at all afterwards, that you have that stand down period and that you allow yourself to recover.

"There's much better concussion support now, we have some community rehabilitation that's available for people with relatively minor symptoms. These are not the ones that are needing head CTs and the like."

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