The Right Notes
Ben Utecht’s professional football resume included a Super Bowl championship with the Indianapolis Colts and five productive seasons as an NFL tight end. It also included a traumatic brain injury.
Concussions, usually caused by a blow to the head, are particularly common in contact sports. Recent research from Mayo Clinic shows that while most high school athletes, their parents and coaches can identify the possible effects of a concussion, only about one-third know that it is a brain injury. Ben, who grew up playing small-town football in Minnesota, had been diagnosed with five concussions in his life.
Though his love of the game was strong, Ben knew it was time for a change when he started experiencing noticeable memory loss. Ben found himself often faltering midconversation, and he began decorating his computer with sticky notes to remind himself to complete everyday tasks. Things that were once unremarkable suddenly felt daunting.
“There were long-term memory gaps. I would be with friends and everybody would be talking about a universal memory. For me it was like it didn’t even exist. I couldn’t even place myself there. That was pretty scary,” Ben says.
To help get back on track, Ben, a longtime patient of Mayo Clinic, sought evaluation and examination from neurologist Bradley F. Boeve, M.D., The Little Family Foundation Professor in Lewy Body Dementia.
“I’ve been in the Mayo system for such a long time, and its reputation obviously precedes itself,” says Ben. “They do an exceptional job in patient care and really making patients feel like their situation is genuinely and authentically important.”
Finding New Purpose
Typically, when someone experiences a concussion, experts at Mayo Clinic follow a plan that includes evaluating the individual’s signs and symptoms, reviewing the medical history, and conducting a neurological exam to test vision, hearing, strength and sensation, balance, coordination, and reflexes. The doctor also evaluates cognitive skills including memory, concentration and the ability to recall information. Brain imaging tests may also be performed, depending on individual circumstances.
For Ben, a neurological evaluation revealed some cognitive weakness. Another brain injury could be catastrophic. Knowing that his professional football career was over, Ben poured himself into his other passions — music and motivational speaking.
Ben, who grew up in an athletic and very musical and theatrical family, sold out 21 shows in a holiday concert tour last year.
“No one really expects the singing football player to ever be any good, but I love that because I’ve poured a lot of time and training into it, and it’s always fun to walk out on stage,” Ben says. “You can see people thinking, ‘All right, let’s see what this football player can do,’ and then they’re like, ‘Wow, he really can sing.’”
In addition to music, Ben felt inspired to share his story with people, including athletes, parents, coaches, medical staff, and individuals and caregivers dealing with memory loss. His motivational talk, called “MVP: Mind, Value, Purpose,” tells about his personal journey with concussions and is focused on emotionally connecting people to the importance of their memory.
“What makes us relevant and gives us identity as human beings is only what we can remember,” Ben says.
In his presentations, he challenges people to consider how differently they might live their lives if they knew they would lose their memories and to live every moment with a distinct sense of purpose. Ben strives to model this approach in his own life. With his wife and four young daughters, he relishes the “beautiful chaos” of a busy career and a family schedule full of piano, dance, golf, volleyball and family movie nights. He’s also written a book and launched a consulting firm.
To make sure the future stays bright, Ben continues to manage his health with annual exams and monitoring at Mayo Clinic.
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Concussion Research and Education Power Patient Care
Studying the brain to keep athletes safer
As a major referral center, Mayo Clinic sees many athletes such as Ben Utecht who need care after a concussion or other traumatic brain injury. And while Mayo Clinic's experts are committed to providing unparalleled treatment options, they are also focused on research and education efforts to more accurately and objectively diagnose concussions to make sports safer for athletes at every age and ability.
"Diagnosing a concussion can be challenging," says Michael J. Stuart, M.D., orthopedic surgeon and co-director of Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center. "Traditionally, concussion has been diagnosed by player reported symptoms, observable signs or some type of examination on the sideline having to do with memory, recall and balance. These are all important, but there's a subgroup of athletes who don't report symptoms or don't have them yet because symptoms can evolve over time."
To address this concern, Mayo Clinic experts take a multifaceted approach to studying concussions and traumatic brain injury in hopes of eliminating some of the guesswork.
- Studying the brain to unlock answers about keeping athletes safer: Researchers at Mayo Clinic's brain bank on the Florida campus are studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy — brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas. The team has found evidence that professional football players and males who participated in amateur contact sports in their youth are susceptible to this disease, and they are working to solve additional questions aimed at keeping all athletes safer.
- Developing and testing concussion tools: Mayo Clinic provided expertise and counsel used in the development of the King-Devick Test, a rapid, easy-to-administer eye movement test. Mayo Clinic is also working on the development of devices that will hopefully be used to quantitatively measure concussions in the future.
- Fostering dialogue that leads to change: Mayo Clinic hosts symposiums to further concussion dialogue, including Mayo Clinic's Ice Hockey Summits. Discussion from these summits has resulted in action items.
Less than 1 in 10 people lose consciousness. You don't need to be "knocked out" to have a concussion.
The King-Devick Test helps objectively determine whether an athlete should be removed from play. The sideline test takes two minutes. It screens for:
- Eye movements
- Other signs of subpar brain function
Athletes are timed while reading a series of single-digit numbers off a card or tablet. The time to complete this exercise is compared to the player's baseline test time.
One concussion can lead to another. After a concussion, you're three to four times more likely to sustain another concussion within the same season. A second hit could be the last. Second impact syndrome, when someone incurs a second concussion while still recovering from the initial injury, may result in rapid brain swelling that's often fatal. All concussions should be assessed by a medical professional.
“The experience has been fantastic. Having the concussion history that I have, if I can make sure that I’ve got the best experts in the world looking at my brain at Mayo then I know I’m in good hands.” Ben’s hope is that sharing his story will help inspire change and shed light on the significance of concussions and returning to sports too quickly.
“Concussion for me as a player carries a different level of importance than any other injury because you’re dealing with the one thing that makes you who you are,” Ben says. “My hope is that every adolescent and parent is educated about what a concussion is and who to go see. I think that’s possible. I think that medical evidence is going to be the most essential part to any change in sports culture.” ■
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