It was morning. Colin Bemis woke up in his bed. Groggy and disoriented, he lifted his 6-foot-5 body off the mattress and looked in the mirror in a daze.
Something was off on that day nearly two years ago. And he didn’t quite understand what it was.
It only got worse when he went to school. Bemis sat in his English class at Red Hook High School and raised his hand. But when he attempted to answer a question, he responded as if he were in history class.
“I had this forever-unexplained feeling that something was wrong,” he said. “Nothing was feeling good.”
Bemis was suffering from the impact of post-concussion syndrome, the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury suffered while playing basketball.
Each year, an estimated 300,000 sport-related concussions occur for high school athletes in the United States, according to a 2012 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. In the spring and fall of 2014, Bemis sustained two.
Tuesday, Bemis and his Red Hook boys basketball team will play in the state playoffs, the culmination of a successful season that included a Section 9 Class A title on Sunday.
But, for more than a year, Bemis’ life was in disarray as he experienced constant headaches and struggled to focus. The concussions cost him a season of his high school basketball career but, more than that, made basic social interaction and school work a daily struggle.
Red Hook High School put him on an individual education plan, which included such things as books on tape as part of his English classwork, and he needed to make multiple trips to the nurse’s office each week to just rest.
Still, after a year of recovery, multiple opinions from doctors and a battery of physical tests required by the school to ensure his symptoms were gone, Bemis remained steadfast in his goals:
“I can remember being in elementary school and watching Red Hook basketball games, looking at the seniors and wondering, what’s it going to be like when I’m a senior?” Bemis said. “I knew my biggest goal was to get that one last season.”
He got his wish. This season Bemis has been a key contributor for the Raiders. Last week, he scored eight points in the sectional semifinals. Red Hook will face Byram Hills in the regional semifinals 7:45 p.m. Tuesday at the Westchester County Center in White Plains.
While the threat of a third concussion is omnipresent, Bemis and his family are confident he has made a full recovery.
“There are people that are looking at me that say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you think it’s OK,’” Colin’s mother, Annemarie Bemis, said. “For a long time I settled on the fact that he probably wouldn’t play anymore. I’m happy he can go out on his own terms, but if he hadn’t gotten healthy, I would have said something.”
Red Hook’s championship Sunday came roughly 21 months after Colin Bemis was accidentally hit in the head during a travel recreational basketball game at Skidmore College. He still doesn’t remember exactly how he was hit, but he knew he didn’t feel like himself.
Battling the concussions had not only an effect on Colin Bemis, but everyone around him.
“It was difficult for us to see,” said his father, Mike Bemis. “We knew it was hard to understand. He wasn’t eating the same, he looked weaker. He was suffering the whole time. The biggest difference in his behavior was he wasn’t even touching a basketball.”
He couldn’t. After his first concussion, Colin Bemis was told by his doctor not to participate in physical activity. Throughout the summer of 2014, he “laid low” until he was cleared to play again — which is standard protocol for concussions — only to sustain another concussion during a recreational game at Bard College in the fall.
“I generally tell my patients to avoid exacerbating activities,” said Dr. Deborah Light, of the Albany Medical Center, who treated Bemis and specializes in sports-related injuries. Light estimated that she sees between 150 and 300 athletes per year with concussive injuries.
“They may describe a sensation of being dazed, getting their bell rung, having visual changes or being confused.”
Concussions represent almost 9 percent of all high school athletic injuries, according to a report in the Journal of Athletic Training. Research by Montreal’s McGill University found athletes who had suffered one concussion become four to six times more likely to sustain a second.
From 2006-10, falls were the leading cause of concussions, accounting for 40 percent of all traumatic brain injuries, according to the Center for Disease Control and Protection. Unintentional blunt trauma, which happened in Bemis’ case, accounted for 15 percent of concussions in that time frame.
Colin Bemis struggled in school throughout 2014-15 and was “facing a lot of difficulties,” he said.
“Your academic life is hurt, your social life is hurt,” he said. “You just want to be in your bed and sleep.”
Red Hook accommodated him as best it could, though, giving him extra time and help to work on his studies, under a Section 504 plan.
A Section 504 plan is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that prohibits discrimination based on disability. It requires the needs of students with disabilities to be met as adequately as the needs of the non-disabled are met. To be protected under Section 504, a student must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, have a record of such an impairment, or be regarded as having such an impairment, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Red Hook Principal Roy Paisley said the school has about 55 students “who have a condition or disability as defined by section 504. These students generally receive only accommodations, such as extended time on tests, a separate testing location for testing or preferential seating in a classroom.”
“He had a great support system,” Annemarie Bemis said. “The school did a great job, for the attention and time they gave him to succeed.”
Although he was sidelined for the 2014-15 season, Colin Bemis attended each practice and game. Then after the school year ended and summer passed, the impact of the concussions subsided.
In October, Bemis finally felt like himself again. After not experiencing any concussion-like symptoms in September, becoming stronger, gaining weight and finding he didn’t need extra time and help for studies, he underwent tests with Light to determine whether or not he would be cleared to return to playing basketball.
He also sought a second opinion at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, just to be sure.
“They told him, ‘If you’re at the point where you’re feeling good, you just have to decide for yourself (if you want to play again),’” Annemarie Bemis said.
Still, he needed even more examination by the school.
State law requires that students who sustain concussions may not return to athletic competition until they have been symptom-free for 24 hours. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association has provided schools with guidelines for a protocol for recovering from a concussion, but there is no uniform rule in place.
At Red Hook, the protocol to return from a concussion involves a battery of tests over a five-day span. Athletes attempting to return to play must be cleared by a school district-approved physician and pass the tests, which involve activity that gradually progresses.
For instance, if any athlete runs for five minutes on a treadmill and feels no concussion-like impact, they move on to the second day, which involves more time on the treadmill. Should there be no concussion-like symptoms after that, they move on to the third day. This pattern continues until all five days are complete, although should an athlete experience concussion-like symptoms after any one of the five days, they must start the process over again.
The tests need to be overseen by an athletic trainer, a coach or a physical education teacher.
“We don’t go zero to 60,” Light said about clearing an athlete to play after a concussion. “They start with light activity, progress more to more vigorous activity and gradually add back in some contact.”
Jessie Ely, Red Hook’s full-time athletic trainer, supervised Colin Bemis’ tests.
Even when Colin Bemis was cleared to participate, Red Hook coach Matt Hayes took precaution with him.
“At the beginning of the year there were contact drills,” Hayes said. “When there was an aggressive rebound drill I told him ‘You’re sitting this out,’ and I put him off to the side. We limit him to some things in practice.”
But, fear of a third concussion didn’t strike the Bemis family.
“Once he was cleared,” Mike Bemis said, “he did everything the doctors recommended. You could tell he was back to normal; you could see it in his eyes.”
Colin Bemis’ play on the court showed just how ready he was. Against Franklin D. Roosevelt High School on Dec. 18, he scored 10 points in a Red Hook win. On Jan. 16 against Valley Central, he grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds in another victory.
“He’s been a huge factor for us,” Hayes said. “He gives us size and has a nice perimeter game.”
Colin Bemis has given up on the idea of playing basketball in college. But, after high school he plans on studying how to help athletes who have had concussions — and perhaps help prevent them — by becoming an athletic trainer.
“He’ll be able to relate to kids he works with down the road,” Hayes said.
More than a year battling the impacts of post-concussion syndrome has given Colin Bemis an understanding of exactly how much damage a traumatic brain injury can incur.
“What I learned is, it’s more than not being able to play a sport,” he said. “It’s a psychological aspect, a physical aspect.”
A.J. Martelli: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4836, Twitter: @AJM_PoJoSports
What is a concussion?
A concussion is traumatic brain injury that impacts the way the mind functions. Concussions occur from blows to the head and can influence memory and cognitive skills. Symptoms include headaches, difficulty thinking clearly, difficulty concentrating, dizziness and lack of energy, among other indicators.
Visit http://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com to watch Colin Bemis discussing his year battling post-concussion syndrome.