Still fighting

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Cynthia Burtch/Courtesy photo
Mikala Farmer, shown during her playing career at Denton High School, continues to deal with the long-term effects of the concussions she suffered while playing soccer.

Past concussions force ex-DHS player to refocus her competitive drive

Before the thunder claps across the sky and the ground is drenched by an onslaught of rain, Mikala Farmer can feel it coming.

She feels it not in the same way most can feel it coming when the temperature dips and the wind picks up. No, Farmer can feel it coming hours before, when the pain swells in her head before the rain falls and storms begin.

It’s a long-term effect of many concussions the 20-year-old picked up in her three years of playing soccer at Denton High School. She was forced to give up an opportunity to play at TWU, forced to quit playing before her senior year and forced to deal with the consequences of playing.

And even though she played with protective headgear after her first concussion, it couldn’t suppress her playing style or the concussions.

“She played the game one way,” former Denton head coach Iseed Khoury said. “She practiced that way and she played it the same way. She went all-out. She did not shy away from any 50-50 ball. I think ultimately, that’s what cost [Farmer] her career.”

While she was playing, the repercussions from the head injuries piled up. Farmer was having nightmares almost every night, and that’s only when she finally fell asleep. She struggled to remember the material she learned in class. She woke up early in the morning and studied it over again.

She admits she didn’t fully understand concussions back then. She thought it was something that would heal over a couple of months.

A study published by The American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012 states that football had the highest percentage of concussions among athletes at 47.1 percent. Girls soccer was next at 8.2 percent.

Off the field, Farmer had to be very careful about sustaining any head injuries, as they could trigger seizures, most of which were severe.

There was the time a kid dived through her car window and accidentally hit her in the face. She couldn’t stop shaking, had a seizure and lost consciousness. She woke up in an ambulance as the paramedics were worried as Farmer couldn’t stop convulsing.

Another time, she was playing volleyball and she went up for a ball and collided with another person. She was out cold for 45 minutes, and when she finally woke up, she was scared. She couldn’t remember any names or what Chick-fil-A was. It’s her favorite.

She said she didn’t eat much because apparently she forgot to eat unless she saw somebody else eating. One time when she attempted to eat a chicken nugget, she was using a fork and had it backwards.

“At the end, most of the episodes would scramble her brain, so she wouldn’t know where she was a lot of the times,” said her mother, Kaylin Farmer. “She wouldn’t know who I am. She wouldn’t know who anybody was. So it took a little bit to gain her trust.”

Mikala said that during her senior year, she estimated she only went to school for 20 full days. She couldn’t deal with the school’s florescent lights. There was a guy half-mockingly calling her “Radio” in reference to a mentally handicapped movie character, and the sport she loved was no longer hers to play.

“It was really hard,” Farmer said. “I lost a lot of friends, and I don’t blame them. You don’t want to deal with someone who has problems like that and feel like you have to be the caretaker of them.”

All of this changed Farmer. The former center midfielder wasn’t the same one her high school coach knew well.

“Her demeanor changed,” Khoury said. “She went from a smiling person, jumpy, bubbly, to a person who almost became a loner. That’s when I first started talking to her mom and dad about if there was anything happening in her life that was causing her to change.”

There was also the time Farmer was walking outside of the school to her grandmother’s car, and she fell over and had a seizure.

“That was reality,” Khoury said. “That was, ‘Here it is.’ I couldn’t hold her up because she became — she just fell out of my hands. I couldn’t hold her. It was a moment I don’t want to ever remember — looking at her and saying to yourself, ‘What do I do?’ because there’s nothing you can do.”

Making changes

In 2011, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2038, also known as Natasha’s Law. It’s named after former Allen girls soccer player Natasha Helmick, whose soccer career was also cut short because of multiple concussions.

Along with many other things, the bill mandated concussion oversight teams for districts that establish a return-to-play protocol before athletes can return to their respective playing fields.

It was a law sparked by growing concerns regarding concussions and their long-term effects on athletes.

Former Ryan girls soccer head coach Raiford Malone said that during the last three or four years, before he resigned this April, he lost starters each season because of concussions and said the rate has increased over the years.

Malone said that in the past, kids with concussion-like symptoms were shuffled to the sideline to shake off the symptoms before they returned to the field. He said that trend has changed over the last five or six years.

Ryan tested players’ memory and intellect prior to the season, so if a concussion was sustained, the players could retake the tests and the scores could be compared to measure the effect of a possible head injury.

Malone said the tests make it easier for coaches to decipher potential injuries.

“Basically, you’re depending on the athletes being honest with you, and most athletes want to get back onto the field,” Malone said. “If you’re telling them ‘You can’t go back onto the field until you don’t have a headache for 10 days,’ then they’re going to tell you they don’t have a headache even if they did.”

University Interscholastic League athletic director Mark Cousins said the state’s public high school governing body has been looking at concussions in all sports since about 2005. Cousins said while the state’s stats on concussions are not very good and only contain football statistics from a small sampling of schools, the main thing for the UIL is the education of its players, parents and coaches.

“The most important [factor] in there, as well, is the student,” Cousins said. “Making sure that when they do have such an injury, that they do report it and they let people know and don’t try to hide it or don’t try to play through it, that they understand how serious it can be and the aspects of what can happen.”

Possible prevention

On Khoury’s old desk in his former office at Denton High, there were a few portraits near the side of his computer. One was of him and his former coach and UNT legend, Hayden Fry. Along with a picture of Khoury and another one of his former players was a picture of Farmer wrapped around Khoury, and the two couldn’t look any happier.

Khoury remembers that picture very well. While it was being taken, Farmer chided her head coach.

“I can’t put my two arms around you,” Farmer said.

“I thought that was hateful,” Khoury said back jokingly.

After Farmer’s injuries, Khoury began to research a way to preserve his players, no matter how marginal the protection is.

A company called Full 90 offers protective headgear. In an article published in British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2007, a study was done on soccer players ranging in age from 12 to 17 on self-reported symptoms during the 2006 season. The study concluded that “being female may increase the risk of suffering a concussion and injuries on the head and face, while the use of [soccer] headgear may decrease the risk of sustaining these injuries.”

Dr. Mark Barisa, the director of neuropsychology at the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation, said the structure of girls’ bodies plays a huge factor in why their concussion rate tends to be higher than boys.

“The musculature of even high school boys is so much stronger in the neck area than the girls, and they’re able to withstand some of the impact,” Barisa said. “They sustain the blows with a little more resiliency because of the muscularity of the neck area and the shoulders.”

Farmer began wearing the headgear after the first concussion. Kaylin Farmer said wearing the headgear spared Mikala from a far worse situation, and contemplated if things would be better had her daughter worn the equipment from the start.

Barisa said studies regarding headgear and concussions have been mixed so far. Barisa added that time may tell before conclusive evidence can be found, but the main thing the doctor focused on was proper education.

“The thing we have to be careful of is to not get caught up in assuming that a headgear product like that will ultimately keep a child from having a concussion,” Barisa said. “Again, it’s a margin of protection, but it doesn’t eliminate the potential for having a concussion.”

Last summer, Khoury took the 15 girls on his Texas Spirit SC 98 North team to the Gothia Cup in Gothenburg, Sweden, the world’s largest youth soccer tournament. At their coach’s urging, every single player on the team decided to wear protective headgear. The headgear looks like a bulky headband that helps protect players from picking up serious head injuries.

Khoury didn’t want what happened to Mikala to happen again.

Still fighting

Farmer still ended up at TWU, even if she’s not playing soccer. And just because she’s no longer playing soccer doesn’t mean she’s not competitive anymore.

After spending so much time in the hospital, she figured she might as well work in one. As of now, she wants to become an anesthesiologist and wants to make a difference if someone is going to get better or not.

She’s waiting tables and bartending at Texas Land & Cattle Steak House. When she was training for the job, she had to practice holding trays up with her right arm.

Farmer originally was right-hand dominant, but that’s become her weaker side.

When she took her training test at the restaurant, her mother said Farmer knew the material but couldn’t verbalize her answers.

She didn’t make it the first time around, but on the following test, Kaylin said, her daughter did great. She’s been working there for more than a year.

“It’s not necessarily changed her,” Kaylin Farmer said. “She’s still very competitive — she’s just very competitive with her grades. She’s got some pretty big goals ahead of her about what she’d like to do with the rest of her life. She’s pretty competitive up there where she’s waitressing.

“She just threw it into work and school. I think there was a lot of depression. She’s had to get through a lot to get to the point where she’s at now, as far as mentally. But she didn’t let it stop her very long. She’s right back at it.”

Mikala’s brother, Zack, is going to be a senior next year at Denton, and his soccer schedule is taped on the side of the kitchen cabinet closest to the entry point of the room.

Standing a few feet away, mother and daughter were leaning over the countertop when Mikala was asked if she’s played any soccer at all recently.

“No, but I was asked to play on a coed team,” she said.

Farmer looked across the countertop and grinned at her mother.

“I haven’t asked her yet, though.”

BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.


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