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CTL Faculty E-Newsletter

Helping Students with Head Trauma

By David Silver
Coordinator of Disability Services, Center for Teaching and Learning

Whenever more than 2000 active young adults, many of whom participate in varsity or club sports, are concentrated in a community such as HWS, there will inevitably be injuries, and among these injuries will be various kinds of head trauma. As a society, we are learning more about the nature and treatment of head injuries as the medical expertise concerning such injuries advances and filters down. We are coming to understand the ways that such injuries can interfere with day-to-day life activities and especially those activities with a cognitive component, in this case learning and studying at the college level.

The ways in which various offices at Hobart and William Smith Colleges respond to students with head injuries can play an important role in helping those students determine the best course for recovery while maintaining his/her academic career. Disability Services in the Center for Teaching and Learning has, over the last few years, become increasingly involved in helping to accommodate students who have suffered a head trauma, and especially those suffering from post-concussive syndrome.

How does an injured student get accommodations for a concussion?
Students with post-concussive syndrome find their way to Disability Services in the CTL by a variety of means. Often they are referred to the CTL by the offices of the Deans of either Hobart or William Smith. Sometimes, they are referred by a professor or an advisor. And sometimes they are referred by the coaches, or staff of the athletic departments. They have also been referred by Hubbs Health Center, or they have in some other way become aware that there are services available at the CTL, and they self-refer. By whatever means they originally come to the CTL to investigate services or accommodation, the process is much the same. Disability Services begins the process of accommodation of students with head injuries by documenting the injury and determining whether the healthcare professionals involved in a student’s care have addressed the issues of when the student might be ready to return to college life, and what accommodations may be required to assist at student in completing their coursework while the recovery process continues. In cases where a student has not yet been seen by appropriate medical professionals, that student is encouraged to seek such medical care, be that at Hubbs Health Center, or some other appropriate medical facility. Often, students have been seen initially at a local emergency room. In these cases, it is often important, depending on the severity of the injury, that they be seen in a follow-up visit, often by sports medicine or head trauma specialists. Evaluation by such specialists and their subsequent recommendations can be crucial in informing the disability accommodation process

What can an injured student expect after sustaining a head injury?
The time immediately after a head trauma or concussion can be particularly difficult for a student with an active academic, athletic, and personal life. Among the symptoms that are most problematic for college students suffering from post-concussive syndrome are: hypersensitivity to light or sound; the inability to focus or maintain focus, especially on cognitive tasks such as reading, studying, attending, or memorizing; an increased need for rest or sleep, often with the related need for quiet and darkness; an often temporary inability to remember new information as easily as has been typical for an individual.

There may be some anxiety connected with a student’s injury, or his/her ability to perform tasks, especially cognitive tasks, at levels that a student has come to expect. For many injured students, the experience of post-concussive syndrome is their first personal experience with performing atypically, and this can be quite disconcerting. In these cases, a referral to counseling services is often suggested.

Often, the initial treatment for concussion involves complete rest for a week or more, with a medical recommendation to stay away from light and noise, and even to miss some classes. Response to initial treatments often allows an injured student to get much better relatively quickly and even function near normally. On the other hand, some of the effects of posts-concussive syndrome can linger for a considerable amount of time.

How can the Colleges help an injured student get back to typical college life?
After evaluation and initial treatment, medical professionals return an injured student to college life and classes. At that time, it is appropriate to consider the ways in which the Colleges can be helpful to the injured student as she/he recovers and resumes college life. Often, the office of the Deans of either Hobart or William Smith has already informed a student’s current teaching faculty of that student’s injury. Especially if there has been a medical evaluation that contains recommendations for academic or housing accommodations, a second notification, containing specific accommodations is sent out from the office of Disability Services, CTL. These accommodations are individualized but often include the following: extended time for exams with the further accommodation of the option for test taking in a quiet, less distracting setting; some consideration by professors concerning due dates for readings and assignments while a student is in recovery and catching up on missed class work; in more difficult cases, consideration by faculty of incompletes or withdrawals from certain courses, most often with the advice and consent of academic advisors and deans.

Completing the semester in which a student sustains a head injury is the important first step in serving students so injured. But follow-up for subsequent semesters is equally important. Beginning to come to terms with longer-term effects of post-concussive syndrome and incorporating recommendations from medical, academic, athletic department staff, and other professionals into a student’s post- injury plans becomes paramount. The CTL and Disability Services is often part of those plans, as full recovery from post-concussive syndrome often takes more than the initial semester.