Danica Tavite stood up after making the tackle and didn’t think anything was wrong. Then she couldn’t recognise her team medic.
The 21-year-old wing and fullback had just had her fourth concussion in five years.
“I tried to play it off, but it got to the point where I got a bit dizzy,” Tavite, who plays for the Hutt Old Boys Marist Women’s team, said.
“I walked across and she just looked at me like ‘who the hell are you?’ And I said right, fine, come with me’,” King said.
She didn’t play for the rest of the season and is now questioning whether she wants to keep playing the sport she loves.
Bernie Tavite, who’s the team’s former manager, said it has been unsettling seeing her daughter still weathering the effects of the injuries.
“She says, I’m feeling this way and I don’t know why.”
Her daughter has days which are a mental battle and she’ll withdraw, Bernie Tavite said.
“It’s a serious, serious brain injury. We’ve taken it very seriously with our team.”
New Zealand Rugby concussion guidelines outline players must be benched for 21 days, but can return after that with medical clearance.
King, who works as a clinical nurse specialist at Hutt Hospital’s emergency department, has just published research that suggests those guidelines don’t account for women’s average recovery time.
His PhD research followed 40 Wellington women’s club rugby players through a season and found they took an average of 28.9 days before they were fit to play again. He tested their abilities through an international standard known as the King-Devick test, which can be done on the sideline and asks players to rapidly read numbers scattered across a screen.
“The international consensus on concussion says 80 per cent will resolve in seven to 10 days. But here I’m finding this cohort of players – at 10 days they’re at their worst. Everything is set on what’s been tested before and it’s always been tested on males.”
“We need to change the way we view and treat concussion and separate what we’re doing for males and females. It needs to be an individual thing because no two concussions are the same.”
He said the menstrual cycle may have an effect as different hormones are at play when the body prepares to have a child, and women don’t have the same neck strength as men.
A common misconception is that concussion requires a head knock, but that’s not always the case, King said. This means things like a low tackle, a shoulder hitting the ground, even an upright heavy landing can cause concussion, he said.
“If I have a block of jelly inside a case, I can make the case stronger, but hit the case and it’s still going to wobble.”
There’s also a perception the injury is a respectable battle scar and that needs to change, he said.
“It’s not a badge of honour. It’s a silent epidemic and people need to be more aware of it.”
The two days immediately following the injury is crucial for starting work with physiotherapists, he said. While rest is important, plonking yourself in front of a screen can be dangerous.
“Don’t go to work for a week, don’t go to school for a week you need to recover. In that week you need cognitive rest –so no TVs, playstation, anything like that – but do your walks – walking around the house, walking around the block, and increase it slowly.”
King has just been named in the top 0.5 per cent of international experts on concussion by medical ranking site Expertscape. His research into women’s concussion has just been published in the international journal, JSM Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
“When I look back at it now, I don’t know why I kept playing. It’s a tough guy mentality and a tough girl mentality.”