It only took a split second, a turn to one side instead of the other.
In that one moment in June 2010, Austin Lee went from active adolescent to hospital patient.
Austin – he was 12 years old then – had gone from his Cheektowaga home to play a pickup baseball game nearby with some friends. He was pitching, and the batter hit a line drive toward him. Austin turned and tried to duck. But the hardball hit him squarely in the back of the head.
He went home. His mother, Dessie Bellinger, applied ice to reduce any swelling, and the next day he woke up feeling fine.
Everything seemed OK, except Bellinger wasn’t taking any chances. The morning after the incident, she took Austin to a doctor, who diagnosed a mild concussion, something to be taken seriously but an injury that generally heals on its own. The family breathed a collective sigh of relief, thinking that nothing truly worrisome had happened.
Their relief was short-lived.
“In the next several days, Austin just wanted to sleep. He wasn’t hungry. It wasn’t normal,” said Bellinger, who handles inpatient credit reviews for Kaleida Health.
The symptoms prompted her to drive Austin to the emergency department at Women & Children’s Hospital, where personnel performed a CT scan. CT stands for computerized tomography. It’s a common diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images of parts of the body.
In this case, a scan of Austin’s head revealed the injury was more serious than a mild concussion. He had suffered a skull fracture and bleeding in the brain.
He was immediately admitted to the intensive care unit, and Bellinger grew anxious.
“You think you can handle anything until it is your own kid,” she said. “I almost hit the ground when I saw the CT scan. I was scared.”
Austin had a linear skull fracture, the most common type, in which the skull fractures in one line. Such fractures are common and tend to heal on their own. In this case, the more problematic issue was the bleeding.
“We needed to make sure the hemorrhage didn’t get bigger and fully understand the cause, because it had features not typical of that kind of fracture,” said Dr. Veetai Li, chief of pediatric neurosurgery at the hospital.
Fortunately, there was nothing seriously wrong. The treatment – plus rest and observation – took time but required no medications or procedures.
Austin, an active child who played league football, baseball and floor hockey at the time, also was required to avoid contact sports.
“It’s like a bruise on the brain. The only treatment is time,” said Bellinger, who also has a younger daughter and a stepson.
Today, nearly three years later at age 15, Austin has recovered but needs to be careful. He still must avoid contact sports. But there is no sign of any long-term cognitive effects, although loud noises, bright lights and sudden motions can bother him.
“I get a headache every now and then, but I feel normal. I’m fortunate,” said Austin, who now plays in the outfield for the junior varsity baseball team at Cheektowaga Central High School.
He doesn’t plan to get near a pitcher’s mound again.
“In the outfield, you have more time to react to the ball, so I feel safe,” he said.
How common are youth sports injuries?
The incidence of cases that end up in a hospital emergency room from the eight most common sports and recreational activities of children ages 5 to 14 decreased by 12.4 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to a study presented last month at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
The research from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found that while overall sports injuries in children have declined over the past decade, injuries are on the rise for those playing football and soccer.
Statistics used in the study came from the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. The researchers examined bicycling, basketball, football, roller sports, playground equipment activities, baseball and softball, soccer and trampoline.
An estimated 19 million children and adolescents play baseball as part of a team or in backyards each year in the United States, according to the Center for Injury Research and Policy of the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
A 2009 study by the center found that the number of youth baseball-related injuries that end with a visit to the emergency room decreased 25 percent from 1994 through 2006, from 147,000 cases to 111,000.
The most common method of injury was being hit by a baseball or a bat. The most common injuries and commonly injured areas were cuts and bruises to the face, and arm or hand.
The authors of the study concluded that baseball is a relatively safe sport, and children should be encouraged to participate but that parents and leagues could take steps to make the sport even safer.
Injuries to pitchers from batted balls are not common in baseball, for youths or adults, whether in organized games or in backyards. But when they do occur, they can be frightening and pose the potential for catastrophic injury. Incidents in recent years have spurred calls for developing and requiring some sort of protective gear for pitchers.
Interest in protective headgear for pitchers appears to be growing, and manufacturers have introduced designs in recent years. But few leagues or schools have made the practice mandatory.
Tim Gardner, president of Mel Ott Little League, said that one of the problems leagues have tried to address but that still exists is the use of bats that are more powerful than those used in the past. He said that if pitchers are more at risk today, that may be one reason why.
“Bats are more souped up, even the legal ones. They react to the ball like trampolines, and the ball really hops off,” he said.
Another factor potentially increasing the risk of injury, he said, is that children and adolescents who play baseball today tend to play it less because of the trend among families toward more organized play.
“Kids used to be outside playing all day,” he said. “That made them more athletically attuned to the sport. You don’t see that as much anymore.”