Winnipeg is set to become a North American centre for concussion care when Pan Am Clinic opens a facility in the fall dedicated to treating and researching children and adolescents with the injury.
Premier Greg Selinger is to announce today at least $1 million in provincial funding has been earmarked for the project so far, said Dr. Wayne Hildahl, chief executive officer of Pan Am Clinic, which is run by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. That money does not include the cost of hiring new doctors for the program or pending research grants.
The program will operate on the second floor of the MTS Iceplex and will partner with True North Sports & Entertainment and the Pan Am Clinic Foundation. The University of Manitoba's faculty of medicine, Children's Hospital and Health Sciences Centre Foundation's Kleysen Institute for Advanced Medicine will also play key roles in the program.
Hildahl said the program, which will likely treat 50 new patients a week, has the potential to influence how concussions are handled globally, even at the professional sports level.
"The NHL and other leagues will be keenly interested in research that's going on," said Hildahl, noting even though young brains are particularly vulnerable to concussions, his centre's research will benefit adults as well.
"We believe this is going to be big."
He said the modest $1 million it will take to run the new program means it will be a low-cost project that has high impact -- mostly through research.
'The NHL and other leagues will be keenly interested in research that's going on. We believe this is going to be big'
"I'm proud of that," Hildahl said, noting caring for concussion patients properly is important even if it's not costly. He said he anticipates securing significant research grants.
The program will fill a void in childhood-concussion care, Hildahl said. He said each emergency room doctor at Winnipeg's Children's Hospital sees an average of two to three concussion patients daily, a clear signal Pan Am's new program is essential in preventing permanent injury to kids' brains.
At the helm of the concussion program is Dr. Mike Ellis, a neurosurgeon who moved to Winnipeg from Toronto last summer to take the new position. Hildahl said Ellis is the only brain specialist in the world whose career is dedicated to full-time concussion treatment and research. Ellis is also a concussion consultant to the Winnipeg Jets.
He is one of 11 neurosurgeons in Winnipeg and the first who has worked at Pan Am Clinic, a medical facility founded in 1979 that specializes in muscle and skeletal injuries.
Hildahl said Pan Am Clinic has long seen concussion patients, but like the rest of the worldwide medical community, its doctors have been uncertain how to treat such patients.
The new program at the MTS Iceplex aims to end that uncertainty.
"We are, in many ways, further ahead than anyone else," Hildahl said. "To have the opportunity to have a neurosurgeon who's dedicated to research and clinical work in concussion full time, that's a once-in-a-lifetime."
Concussions are traumatic brain injuries that change brain function. Experts believe its effects -- visual disturbances, headaches, vomiting and confusion -- are usually temporary. In a few cases, concussions can cause permanent changes to the brain and even death.
The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimates up to 10 per cent of athletes will experience a concussion.
Concussions have been making sensational headlines for a few years. In 2011, the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby sustained blows to the head in back-to-back games that resulted in a concussion. The NHL superstar was sidelined for nearly a year.
Earlier this year, a judge rejected a $750-million settlement between the NFL and its players who suffered concussions. The judge, according to media reports, concluded the payout from the NFL wasn't high enough.
Concussions have been linked to suicide. Former NFL player Dave Duerson killed himself in 2011. He reportedly had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
"It's fair to say that we don't have this injury completely figured out," said Ellis, who played volleyball for the U of M Bisons while he completed his undergraduate degree.
Ellis has run a pilot pediatric-concussion program at Pan Am Clinic for several months in which he treats patients referred to him by Children's Hospital. Most of the 50 young patients he sees weekly sustained concussions through sport. His youngest concussion patient so far is a toddler.
Hidahl said he plans to keep the pediatric-concussion program at Pan Am Clinic running even after the new centre at the MTS Iceplex is in full swing. That's partly because Pan Am Clinic's current River Heights location may be easier for some patients to get to than the Iceplex, located near Assiniboia Downs, Hildahl said.
"We know this is probably only the tip of the iceberg," said Ellis, who trained under Dr. Charles Tator, a world-renowned concussion expert.
Ellis said parents, kids, coaches and teachers need to understand the seriousness of concussions, which can initially produce subtle symptoms.
Goalie Coral Johnson, 15, can relate. The Balmoral Hall student, who plays AA hockey, got a concussion in a game in February after an opponent accidently skated into her.
"Her body hit my head," recalled Coral, who endured a milder concussion a couple of years ago.
The Charleswood teen initially attributed her symptoms -- light sensitivity and a headache -- to the adrenalin rush she gets every time she's on the ice. A few days later, she vomited.
That's when her parents took her to the Pan Am clinic's pilot program.
There, Ellis tested her and advised her to take at least a week off school. In that period, Coral had trouble concentrating and even watching television was uncomfortable.
She has since been cleared to return to play and admits she would be devastated if a concussion forced her to quit hockey.
"Hockey is my life. I can't describe it," said Coral, who is part of a Pan Am study in which Ellis and his team will follow her post-concussion academic performance.