By Jon Nalick

When high school junior Brian Heintz walked off the football field in September 2011, he knew something was seriously wrong: his head, back and legs hurt, and he was dizzy with nausea.

Despite seeing a primary care physician and, later, physicians in the emergency room, “we had no idea what was wrong with me, and I had been feeling symptoms for weeks,” he said.

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But after being referred to Gabriel Zada, MD, a neurosurgeon with Keck Medicine of USC, Brian and his family quickly learned what had happened: the accumulated hits and tackles on the football field had left him with a concussion, as well as bleeding in both his brain and his spine.

Dr. Zada noted that Brian’s brain injury was dangerous because if it were left undiagnosed and untreated, “this had the potential to worsen and cause major neurological deficits that could have been long lasting.”

While Brian’s specific injury pattern was rare, Dr. Zada warned that concussion or mild traumatic brain injury “is very common in contact sports and goes undiagnosed or is downplayed a lot of the time. We are now learning that even mild and especially repetitive traumatic brain injury can result in chronic effects in cognition, memory and personality.”

In Brian’s case, Dr. Zada determined that no immediate treatment was required, but that the player would be sidelined until his brain and body had time to heal on its own — a break that ultimately lasted a year. For a high school student eager to get back into the game, the wait was difficult.

Brian said, “After I healed, I would not stop asking about getting back to sports. Dr. Zada was completely supportive during the whole process, and his decision to allow me to return to contact sports has changed my life. I can now appreciate the opportunity I have to play the sports that I love, since there was a time when I wasn’t sure if I ever would again.”

Brian’s mother, Janet Braun, said she especially appreciated Dr. Zada’s empathetic care, saying, “His beside manner was fantastic. He really connected with Brian, who was 16 at the time, and took the time to understand not just him, but consider the needs of the whole family as well.”

She added, “This was our first time at USC, and we loved our care there. The nurses and front desk and MRI staff treated us so nicely. Until we got there, we really didn’t feel like we were getting the care we needed.”

Brian, who will begin his senior year in the fall, has since returned to the football field — and full health. He added: “Nowadays, I’m feeling great!”