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Merrimack Grad Helping the NFL Battle Concussions

By Mathew Galvao ‘17

Associate Editor-in-Chief

 

The National Football League has been battling head injuries recently in what has been one of the major issues this league has faced. Former Merrimack graduate Dr. Thomas Sullivan has helped the NFL crack down on the issue of concussions. Sullivan has worked with the Cincinnati Bengals for the past 18 years as the team’s neuropsychologist.

I meet with all the players when they join the team.  I complete a cognitive assessment battery that lasts for about 40 minutes. The battery is used to assess the player’s typical level of functioning in attention, visual memory, verbal memory, and mental processing speed,” explained Dr. Sullivan.

Learning about the player when they are at a normal state is also key to identifying when the player acts differently from their normal self. It can help identify when a player may or may not have a concussion.

The process of determining whether a player has a concussion includes a few different tests the medical staff puts the player through before any diagnosis is made. Baseline tests are key to determining and diagnosing a concussion and certain symptoms — such as dizziness and lightheadedness — are signs of a concussion.

“The team medical doctors usually determine when a player has suffered a concussion. The most obvious ones cause a loss of consciousness.  When players don’t lose consciousness, they typically appear to be woozy, lightheaded, and off balance,” said Dr. Sullivan,

“Given the range of possible symptoms, it’s very helpful to know the player’s typical behavior before they get a concussion. We typically are very conservative if there is any question about a concussion, and use the rule, ‘When in doubt, sit them out.’”

Dr. Sullivan does believe that the NFL has seen an increase in the diagnosis of concussions in recent years, however, his team can’t say they have seen the same rise. He feels his team has kept a close eye on their players and concussions.

“The league has, but the Bengals have not since I joined the team in 1998. I have observed the Bengals to have a very proactive approach to concussions. The training and medical staffs have always been very watchful of concussions,” Dr. Sullivan said.

The question most people have had regarding concussions is whether the league has taken proper safety measures to help cut down on the number of concussions that have occurred recently.

“My experience with the Bengals has been very encouraging.  The Bengals have consistently shown a very caring attitude toward the players,” said Dr. Sullivan. “When working with players, I always remember to treat them as my brothers, and to focus only on their health and well-being.”

Dr. Sullivan has been very optimistic in the way he has seen the NFL deal with concussions and feels the players are in good hands.

“I have never been aware of anyone trying to downplay or cover up any information about brain injury in the NFL,” said Dr. Sullivan. “At the current time, a great deal of research is being conducted about contact sports and brain health. As we learn more about the impact of sports on brain health, we, as a society, may have to change some of our practices.”

Dr. Sullivan has worked with many different athletes from a wide range of sports. He has worked with athletes from the NFL to the NHL to skateboarders. Diagnosing concussions is the same from sport to sport.

“I was the neuropsychologist for a couple of professional hockey teams. The NHL Mighty Ducks used to have an AHL affiliate in Cincinnati, and I was their brain injury doctor,” he explained. “I have seen swimmers/divers, lacrosse players, motocross riders, basketball players, softball players, and a professional skateboarder. The diagnosis is the same from venue to venue.”

Before attending Merrimack, Dr. Thomas Sullivan was very interested in playing hockey and wasn’t very focused on academics. He described his time at Merrimack as working with great professors that prepared him to succeed after he graduated and lead him to the job he has today.

“When I attended Merrimack, I worked hand-in-hand with great professors who were passionately interested in teaching,” described Sullivan. “When I entered the doctoral program after graduating from Merrimack, I was very well prepared to succeed. Any success I have enjoyed is the result of the great education I received at Merrimack. I will be forever grateful.”