Concussion Monday: What I did right, what I did wrong when my son fell off the monkey bars

Six-year-old Sammy before learning about the dangers of the monkey bars. (Unfortunately, this is still how he drinks out of most water fountains.)

Over the last five Mondays, we have posted concussion material geared toward athletes and anatomy as part of our participation in #ConcussionMonday on social media. This post is geared to parents. Specifically, how should parents and caregivers respond when they suspect concussion in children?

I’ll be the guinea pig for this post.

I recently recounted the story of my son’s concussion to Dr. Elizabeth Clark, a child and adult neurologist with Wyoming Medical Center and Wyoming Neurologic Associates. I then asked her what I did right and what I did wrong. Maybe you can learn from my mistakes.

The setup

My husband and I were at a much-deserved dinner with friends. (At least we thought it was much deserved.)  Sammy, then 6 years old, was at a neighbor’s house who happened to live next to a city park.

Two or three bites into dinner, our phones started ringing. Sammy had been crossing the monkey bars when he missed the last bar, our neighbor told us. Sammy fell and smacked his forehead against the top rung of the ladder leading onto the apparatus.

First off, Dr. Clark, what’s the word on monkey bars? Are they safe for young children, with or without supervision?

Dr. Clark: The American Academy of Pediatrics has no official opinion whether children should be allowed on the monkey bars and we tend to make our recommendations using the official guidelines.

So, basically, I ask parents to use their best judgments. If the child is small in comparison to the height of the monkey bars, it’s probably best for the child not to be on them. It is helpful to have a caregiver with them at all times, but even that won’t prevent all accidents.

To dial or not to dial

On the phone, my neighbor told me that Sammy was groggy and talking with slurred, confused speech. I told the neighbor we were on our way, and we left our forks on our plates. It took us between 10 to 15 minutes to drive across town.

So, was leaving dinner the right call, or should we have asked the babysitter to call 911 and planned to meet Sammy at the emergency room?

Dr. Clark: Anytime a child has a knock to the head and neurological symptoms such as slurred speech, grogginess, vomiting, confusion, it is best that the child be transported to the emergency room via ambulance. That way they can be evaluated and monitored and the ER doctors can tell parents what to look for.

Take two aspirin and call in the morning!

Looking back, I think I didn’t ask the sitter to call an ambulance because I figured there’s not a lot to be done for a concussion. I figured I’d take Sammy home, give him some Tylenol and an ice pack, and monitor him through the night.

But by the time we reached Sammy, he had vomited and was still lethargic. My husband and I decided to drive him to Wyoming Medical Center ourselves. We figured it would take less time than calling an ambulance.

Dr. Clark, can parents monitor children at home if they suspect concussion, or did we make the right call to drive Sammy to the ER?

Dr. Clark: Some parents who are in the medical profession who know what they are looking for may feel more comfortable keeping their child at home, however these people are few and far between. That’s why we say, “Go to the ER.”

The most serious outcome of concussion is bleeding in the head, but that is rare. Still, it’s deadly and should be checked by a professional. So taking Sammy to ER was appropriate.

However, ambulances are almost always quicker in emergency situations than driving a patient to the ER yourself.

The sheepish conclusion

Sammy, 11, is now a healthy, sometimes happy, middle schooler. Lest you think his fashion sense is an unforeseen side effect of his bump on the head, he was clipping ties to his t-shirts long before falling from the monkey bars.

Sammy did indeed have a concussion. He repeatedly threw up the liquid ER staff needed him to keep down for his CT scan. When he did finally manage, doctors informed us he wasn’t bleeding. He’s now 11 and is a healthy, sometimes happy pre-teenager.  (God help me.)

All that’s left from his concussion experience is a reminder to stay within catching distance when small children are swinging like monkeys from bars, and a funny family story that involves, strangely enough, farm animals.

As Sammy lay in the ER bed – staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, both arms splayed outward as nurses hooked up IVs and took his vitals – a doctor asked me the standard questions about his medical history: Ever have this disease or that? Adverse reactions to any medication? Was he allergic to anything?

No, no and no.

Just then, Sammy sat straight up in his hospital bed: Mom! What did you just say?

I said you aren’t allergic to anything.

But I am allergic to something, Mom. I’m allergic to sheep.

And with that, Sammy fell instantly flat on his back.

The doctor looked at me with a raised eyebrow. I shook my head. Sammy’s only exposure to sheep had been at a petting zoo a few years earlier. The sheep sucked pellets from Sammy’s tiny hands and Sammy sucked sheep slobber from the same hands seconds later. He certainly wasn’t allergic to sheep that day. My husband and I still figure it was the concussion talking.

#ConcussionMonday is an initiative started by Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center to raise awareness about concussion and traumatic brain injury on social media. Hospitals and medical centers across the country use #ConcussionMonday on Twitter to link to education and reminders about concussion prevention.  Read our past posts below:

Week 5: What athletes should know

Week 4: How does a concussion happen?

Week 3: What parents should know 

Week 2: Neurologist Dr. David Wheeler talks symptoms and treatments

Week 1: A high school coach’s guide to recognizing concussions

Kristy verticleKristy Bleizeffer is a writer and public relations rep for Wyoming Medical Center and editor of The Pulse. Previously, she worked at Wyoming newspapers for 12 years, most recently as features editor of the Casper Star-Tribune. She enjoys working in her garden until July when she falls woefully behind and vows to do better next year. She is mother to a son and step-son. Tell her your health stories by emailing or calling (307) 577-2556.

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