Good sense and sound mind not to ignore head blows

Good sense and sound mind not to ignore head blows
McLaren's Formula One driver Fernando Alonso of Spain gestures to the media as he leaves a hospital where he has been hospitalized since Sunday, in Sant Cugat, north of Barcelona February 25, 2015.

"I'M FERNANDO, I drive go-karts, I want to be a Formula One driver when I grow up."

Those, reportedly, were the words from Fernando Alonso when doctors in Barcelona asked him who he was and what he does in life.

Much as we all might sometimes wish we were younger, this was going back too far.

The last time Fernando drove go-karts and had the ambition to drive in F1, was in 1995. He was 13. We all know, even if he had forgotten, that he has twice been the world champion, and has matured into one of the wiliest, and best, racing drivers of this era.

Three days after that medical examination following his high-speed crash during testing, he was indeed back at his childhood home - his parents' home in Oviedo where he grew up.

The good news is that he broke nothing physical in that 215kmh crash at the Circuit de Catalunya on Feb 22.

The even better news, for the whole of sport, is that as a precaution, Alonso has taken medical advice and will not race in the opening 2015 grand prix in Melbourne next weekend.

He posted on Twitter: "It will be tough not to be in Australia, but I understand the recommendations. A second impact in less than 21 days 'NO'#countdown Malaysia".

That message demonstrates that his mind is sound.

It shows good sense.

It is the message that is too often - too dangerously often - blurred when footballers, rugby players, American gridiron players and so many more macho sportsmen (and even women) think they know better than the brain specialists who almost always caution them against second impact syndrome.

That, to simplify it, is a second concussion before the brain has healed from the first.

For at least 50 years, neurologists have tried to warn people that it is not brave to risk a second blow on the head, it is wilful to the point of being suicidal.

A month ago, when the Welsh rugby player George North was concussed not once, but twice, in the same match, there was mixed opinion in the rugger fraternity.

Some were alarmed that the doctors and the coaches let him go out there again after the first knock-out.

Some said, 'It's a man's game', and measured the courage of North in terms of the heroes of yesteryear who, being "real men", were roused by smelling salts and put their heads back in there where, with rugby being such a man's game, the odds are that a tackle, a knee to the temple, a boot at the bottom of a maul, were more likely than not to come his way.

Then there were polarised opinions about whether he should play the next Test match a week later, and how soon he could return to his club, the Northampton Saints.

"At the end of the day, it's rugby, isn't it?" said North on the eve of returning to gain his 50th Wales cap at age 22 last Saturday. "It's not table tennis or tiddlywinks, it's a contact sport and you are going to get some bangs. Unfortunately, they were all on my chin."

The Welsh medical manager Prav Mathema prevented North playing seven days after the concussions, against Scotland.

"I was passing all the tests and I was symptom-free," North complained to the media. "I was up for selection, so your initial thoughts when not picked are that you are gutted."

He then revealed: "The neurologist reckons I had a third blow from falling from 6ft 5in (1.95m) to the deck like a floppy sausage and it wasn't really worth pushing it. In hindsight, it was the right decision, but at the time I was like, 'arghh'!"

The neurologist had the final say. North, rested against his will, got that landmark 50th cap against France instead of against Scotland.

His family was there to see it. They should thank the doctors, and the meddlesome media who make such a big thing about concussions. Somebody has to bang on about the insidious harm that repeated blows to the head cause to people in the name of sport.

So North "lost" two weeks more than he intended because a neurologist wouldn't sign him off as fit to play?

So Alonso, who moved from Ferrari to McLaren between last season and this, has to miss the 2015 opener?

"I'm Fernando, I drive go-karts", is the reason why.

These days, F1 puts electrodes on everything mechanical. Engineers can tell in an instant if something is a millimetre or a millisecond out.

There is an ongoing inquest as to whether Alonso's crash was human error, car malfunction, a combination of both, or whether something caused the driver to black out momentarily.

Maybe McLaren know more than they let on. Maybe the speculation (normally so well controlled by PR) is a symptom of a fallow time for news stories out of a news-hungry sporting industry.

At that speed, it may take a blink of an eye to misjudge a high-speed corner. McLaren's chairman Ron Dennis initially called it "a normal racing accident" and said Alonso had not lost consciousness.

Later, the chief said, "There were two G readings" on the telemeter. "When his head hit one side of the cockpit, and then the other side of the cockpit."

What is normal and what is not are different things in different sports.

What is encouraging, though, is that Alonso took care of his own situation and heeded specialist advice not fly to Melbourne.

Alonso, like North, has no visible symptoms of long-term harm inside his skull. Doctors told him, as they did North, that bleeding in the brain can be so minute, yet so dangerous, that it is better to err on the side of caution.

He rests the mind while keeping the body fit. And if he passes medical inspection, he will return soon enough, in Malaysia at the end of this month.

stsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Mar 7, 2015.
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