Eye Care Offers A Window To Athletes’ Concussions

For DeAnn Fitzgerald ‘81, OD ‘84, optometry isn’t just about eye care, but about the mysteries beyond.

1945 to 2020 | 75 Years of Focusing on Pupils

“The eyes are the windows to the body,” she tells audiences. “One hundred percent of our brain is dedicated to vision in some fashion, 80 percent of all sensory goes through eyes. ... We need to be at the table of rehab services.”

While operating a thriving optometry practice in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Fitzgerald has become a leader in developing concussion protocols for athletes in Iowa and far beyond.

"Vision impairments are often the first signs or symptoms of a traumatic brain injury."

After graduating from Pacific, where she played softball and studied visual science and optometry, Fitzgerald moved to Cedar Rapids and eventually opened her own practice. That practice has expanded to include three clinics, including one called Active Evolution Studio for high-performing athletes, people recovering from brain injuries and others.

Concussion Protocols

Here are some signs and symptoms of concussions in young athletes, along with care recommendations.

The athlete says:

  • I have a headache, or I feel pressure in my head
  • I threw up, or I feel like I’m going to vomit
  • I’m dizzy, or my vision is blurry, or double
  • Sounds seem loud, and lights seem too bright
  • I feel groggy
  • I can’t remember what I was doing
  • I’m not feeling right

Others observe:

  • She can’t remember things that happened before or after the hit
  • He seems dazed
  • They forget what they were told, or seem confused
  • She’s moving clumsily
  • He’s answering questions slowly
  • They lost consciousness
  • She is behaving differently, or is in a different mood

What to do:

  • Take the athlete out of the competition
  • Seek medical attention immediately
  • Consult with a medical professional about whether and when an athlete can return to play. (The athlete shouldn’t return until she is back to doing regular activities and not showing symptoms.)
  • Be familiar with state laws for sideline care in organized sports.

Source: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Much of the damage of a concussion occurs after the initial impact, as the primary injury sets off a string of biological changes that can continue for weeks, according to the American Optometric Association. And vision impairments are often the first signs or symptoms of a traumatic brain injury.

In Iowa, Fitzgerald led the development of a widely accepted baseline screening protocol for young football players. Her Active Evolution Studio also has trained amateur and professional sports teams to improve their ability to compete. As the studio’s website puts it, “an athlete’s ability to see, think and react quickly can make all the difference between winning and losing!”

She is nationally recognized for her work as a sports vision optometrist and on concussion protocols. She was a keynote speaker, for example, at The Ultimate Concussion Conference in Hollywood Beach, Fla., in 2016.

At the conference, she praised the National Football League, long criticized for overlooking or obscuring football’s damaging effects on the brain. “I’m very appreciative of the NFL. The NFL has put concussion on the board,” she told attendees, applauding the league’s adoption of concussion management protocols for its players.

She went on to say more people suffer brain injuries in routine ways — by falling, or in vehicle accidents — but sports injuries get the headlines.

She’s the vice president of the Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association, or NORA. The organization’s fall conference, which has been moved online, will focus on the ways practitioners in different disciplines, including optometry, can work together to achieve better results for patients, she said.

That is necessary because brain injuries involve so many disciplines, from neurology to occupational therapy. Optometry offers a way for providers to assess the extent of the damage and to monitor a patient’s improvement.

In addition to being in demand as an expert on sports vision and concussion protocols, Fitzgerald founded Spanda Inc., a nonprofit that provides eye care in Iowa and around the world.

“I have always appreciated my education at Pacific both undergrad and grad,” she wrote in an email. “And am very grateful I am getting to do what I thoroughly enjoy — practicing optometry and being able to offer patients therapies that enrich their life, whether it’s a thorough routine eye exam, prescribing glasses and contacts, and offering therapies for people that have a more difficult life because of concussion, TBI, stroke or neuro-degenerative disease.”

This story is part of a collection celebrating 75 years of Optometry that first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Pacific magazine. For more stories, visit pacificu.edu/magazine.

Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020