Zach Zorich walks on the sunny side of the street.
The 16-year-old junior at Truman High School in Independence has an impressive 3.7 GPA and an avid interest in history. Zach admires his grandfather who taught by example the importance of doing the next right thing. His circle of friends is wide and he has a supportive family.
But Zach has learned some hard lessons over the past several years. An outstanding athlete—he lettered in varsity baseball and varsity football for the Truman Patriots—Zach has sustained multiple head injuries playing the very sports he loves.
Through the concussions—one suffered during a freshman football game, another playing defensive back his sophomore year and the third later that year during a baseball game—Zach has worked with David Dyck, Jr., DO, FAOASM, and Dr. Lori Boyajian-O’Neill, DO, FAOASM, FACOFP, at Midwest Sports Medicine Physicians and the Center for Concussion Management, part of Midwest Physicians and HCA Midwest Health System. Despite permanent peripheral vision loss, debilitating headaches and a temporary bout with mild depression, Zach has pushed through challenges that might adversely affect some teenagers.
You might say he’s met those challenges head on.
Zach’s mom, Sara, says he pushes himself a bit harder to achieve his academic accomplishments since the series of concussions yet maintains a positive attitude, thanks in large part to working with two of Kansas City’s sports medicine physicians. “Dr. Dyck and Dr. Boyajian-O’Neill understood Zach’s injuries and helped him through the confusion,” says Sara. “They were dedicated to doing everything possible to get Zach better, and he in turn has a commitment to do what they tell him.”
Dr. Dyck, along with Dr. Boyajian-O’Neill, diagnoses and treats hundreds of area athletes who are injured playing sports. The duo speaks to coaches, trainers, school administrators and nurses, parents and other groups and sits on panels to raise awareness of concussion’s sometimes-elusive signs and symptoms. They want to ensure that kids like Zach receive the proper treatment the first time they are injured.
“Approximately 10 percent of all athletes will have a concussion at one time in their careers,” says Dr. Dyck. “It’s imperative that the individual is removed from play and seeks medical evaluation. An athlete—whether they’re playing Little League, lacrosse, football, baseball, basketball or any type of sport—who has a brain injury is four to six times more likely to have another one. And of course someone can be injured outside the sports arena—in a car accident or other situation.”
Zach’s first concussion took him to the ER, and he followed up with his pediatrician. After taking the mandatory ImPACT test administered by the Centerpoint Medical Center trainer assigned to Truman High School, Zach was released to play. The ImPACT test, a computerized neurocognitive assessment tool developed by a leading researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, helps determine an athlete’s fitness to safely return to play following a concussion.
Dr. Dyck says dramatic advances have been made in the past decade when it comes to recognizing, treating and managing concussions. “What we’ve found is an unrecognized concussion can escalate into further damage if the athlete continues to play,” says Dr. Dyck. “A simple six-month recovery can change into a more serious situation.”
Zach returned to the football team sophomore year and experienced another head injury. His grades dropped, he lost some vision, experienced crushing headaches and had difficulty concentrating. Zach struggled in math and reading and Sara says he felt detached from his coach, the team and his peers.
Dr. Dyck ImPACT tested Zach several times throughout the year and released him at the end of the season.
“He entered baseball season with a clean bill of health,” says Sara. “During a junior varsity game Zach ran into a fence while chasing a fly ball and hit his head in the very same spot. We visited the Center for Concussion Management again. Dr. Dyck was on vacation so we were introduced to Dr. Boyajian-O’Neill.”
Zach underwent assessment and management for another mild traumatic brain injury. Although Zach still gets headaches, his verbal and cognitive skills are back on par. “Zach’s successive concussions compounded his problems,” says Dr. Dyck. “But because each time we caught the injury early, he’s been able to make a remarkable recovery.”
Dr. Dyck says that the helmet worn during sports doesn’t protect against head injuries. “Helmets are designed to prevent skull fractures and they do an excellent job of that,” he says. “But a concussion can happen from a blow or a rotational force delivered to the brain. Helmets won’t prevent those occurrences.”
While Zach isn’t currently playing sports, he’s back on top of his game, enjoying his studies, friends and family, and putting together a volleyball team of his male classmates. Dr. Dyck and Dr. O’Neill have encouraged him to remain a competitive athlete, but in a sport less prone to collisions.
“I’ve learned from Dr. Dyck and Dr. Boyajian-O’Neill that you’ve got to be thankful for everything you’ve got and to have a positive attitude,” says Zach. In the vernacular of a 16-year-old, that’s just how Zach rolls.