Changing the culture: How Carls are conquering concussions

Conor Gormally ’21, Kira Kunzman ’24, and Kaori Hirano ’25 discuss their work with Concussion Alliance, Gormally’s nonprofit organization centered around concussion education and advocacy.

Erica Helgerud ’20 1 September 2023 Posted In:
Two people present their research poster to two other people.
Kira Kunzman ’24 and Conor Gormally ’21 present their work with Concussion Alliance at the 14th World Congress on Brain Injury in Dublin, Ireland.Photo:

Conor Gormally ’21 got their world turned upside down after they arrived at Carleton as a Class of 2020 first year in 2016. They got a concussion while playing a game of pick-up Frisbee during New Student Week and ended up taking medical leave after just one week of fall term. After a difficult winter term back at Carleton, they had to take leave again for the spring, meaning they had to delay their education to fully recover.

Gormally, who was simply a Frisbee enthusiast, realized during his road to recovery that for college students, almost all concussion education is aimed toward high-level varsity athletes. After learning that concussion research is also mostly conducted with college athletes—such as the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) and the U.S. Department of Defense’s joint CARE Consortium, which studies athletes and military cadets—he wasn’t surprised, but he knew that meant there was a gap to be filled, and he decided he could help fill it.

“The majority of concussions are actually motor vehicle accidents and falls, particularly in younger children and older adults,” Gormally said, “but even on college campuses, the majority of concussions aren’t happening during sports––even among student athletes. However, the majority of resources and funding and attention are directed towards sports-related concussions, so I wanted to create something that was primarily directed at concussion as a non-sport-specific issue.”

Along with their mother, Malayka, Gormally founded Concussion Alliance, an education and advocacy nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide reliable, evidence-based information about preventing and treating concussions that is easily accessible to everyone. They also employ a lot of Carls, with 69 of their 99 internship and externship positions since December 2018 filled by Carleton students, and many of their volunteers being Carleton students, alumni, and parents.

Two people with nametags smile and stand next to their research poster.
Gormally and Kunzman at the 14th World Congress on Brain Injury

In the spring of 2023, the hard work of everyone involved in Concussion Alliance was rewarded with an invitation to Dublin, Ireland for the 14th World Congress on Brain Injury, one of the most prestigious conferences in the brain injury field. Funded by a generous Carleton alum, Gormally and Concussion Alliance intern Kira Kunzman ’24 traveled to the conference and presented a poster on a unique resource for college students created by Kunzman and her fellow intern Kaori Hirano ’25, who could not attend the event due to being on an off-campus studies program.

Kunzman and Hirano’s creation is a comprehensive collection of resources specifically designed for college students, including a step-by-step, college-level, non-sport-specific Return-to-Learn Plan—the first of its kind. Reviewed and approved by Dr. Elizabeth Sandel, former president of the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and author of “Shaken Brain: The Science, Care, and Treatment of Concussion,” Kunzman and Hirano’s resource and Return-to-Learn Plan now occupy a significant space in concussion education.

“Being current college students, Kaori and I understand how stressful life can be even when you don’t have a concussion,” Kunzman said. “The additional stress that having a concussion would create makes everything more difficult, so when we were going through the process of creating a resource to help students, we thought about our everyday lives and how each part could be affected.”

“I’ve had friends with non-sports-related concussions, and they weren’t able to find resources or even basic information,” Hirano added, “so creating this felt really important, especially the social life and peer sections. We asked ourselves, if we were supporting a peer with a concussion, what are things that we would need to talk or think about that are very specific to college life as opposed to maybe someone in grade school?”

The majority of other Return-to-Learn Plans focus on varsity athletes or kids in K-12 schools, which meant that the most challenging part in building the new resource for Kunzman and Hirano was actually finding concussion resources that were not focused on those two populations. However, Hirano believes that was also what made working on the project all the more exciting and rewarding.

“There was research coming out even as we were writing up all these different resources,” Hirano said. “I remember one time Kira and I were going through the process, and we realized a new study had just come out two days before, so we needed to update our resources and figure out how to make it fit. It was really incredible to see that even as we were putting all of these resources together, new findings were coming out that were actively helping students better manage their concussions.”

A screenshot of a Zoom call with 13 people.
Concussion Alliance interns meeting, summer 2022

Gormally believes that Kunzman and Hirano’s unique Carleton experiences—Kunzman being on the women’s soccer team and Hirano working for the Office of Accessibility Resources (OAR)—were infinitely valuable perspectives for creating their resource and Return-to-Learn Plan for college students.

“We were very lucky to have those two key viewpoints,” Gormally said. “Those are important positions on campus when it comes to concussion education, and I think that really helped strengthen the resource. I also think it added a lot of weight and value to the resources, at least as we were pitching them in Dublin to leading researchers and clinicians from around the world.”

Gormally and Kunzman’s trip to the World Congress on Brain Injury in Dublin was a perfect opportunity to help further Concussion Alliance’s mission.

“Having our abstracts accepted at major conferences like this one adds to our legitimacy as a resource for people,” Gormally explained. “We are already supported by an extensive expert advisory board of researchers and clinicians, but I don’t have a medical degree, for example. As patient advocates, it’s really important to us that patients can bring our resources to their doctors and their doctors will take them seriously.”

Aside from interactions with their doctors, Gormally says, Kunzman and Hirano’s Return-to-Learn Plan will be especially helpful for students in their interactions with college administrators and professors.

“Many students with concussions haven’t had to advocate for themselves in a disability setting before,” Gormally said. “The step-by-step guidelines in the Return-to-Learn Plan make it easier, because they’re a fantastic way to set a framework for communication with faculty and staff. It gives students support in those conversations, which really helps ease that process and reduce stress, which is a serious factor in recovery.”

Even if a student with a concussion recovers within the standard timeline of four weeks, that’s still a large chunk of a 10-week Carleton term, and it can be hard to catch up if a student doesn’t know what kind of accommodations they should be asking their professors for at any given stage of their recovery process. Some students might find it difficult, for example, to ask to postpone a midterm or cancel a nonessential assignment, but with a stepwise Return-To-Learn plan like Concussion Alliance’s, which they can point to as proof that the accommodation is necessary for their recovery, it becomes much easier to make that ask. Concussion Alliance’s college student resource also benefits professors by providing a Concussion Guide for College Educators, which includes education on concussions and provides specific recommendations and adjustments professors can implement to support their students with concussions.

Research poster outlining a step-by-step return-to-learn plan for a student after they get a concussion.

One of the ultimate goals of Concussion Alliance is to change the cultural understanding of concussions. The organization aims to combat myths that make recovery times worse and reduce the stigma that makes concussions such isolating injuries, in order to make people feel more comfortable asking for accommodations and to make concussions less misunderstood overall.

“Changing this broader culture feels like a massive job,” Gormally said, “but we can already see our impact through the growing number of internship alumni at Carleton, who are really well-educated peer advocates, and through our resources being adopted by OAR and other groups and offices on campus. I think small college campuses like Carleton, where there is such a strong sense of community and where word travels so fast, are this incredible microcosm to start this culture shift.”

Kunzman has appreciated being able to start that change at Carleton with her soccer teammates, beginning last year with a pre-season presentation about concussions to raise awareness.

“There’s always at least one concussion every season,” Kunzman said. “Last season there were multiple, so it was really great that people on the team were actually able to utilize the resources from Concussion Alliance. The approach that the team and our coaches have to concussions now is just astronomically better than in previous years.”

Kunzman, Hirano, and Gormally consider their work with Concussion Alliance to be literally life-changing—and not just for themselves.

“There are so many different things that I’d never considered before that I think about all the time now,” Hirano said. “Learning just a little bit about concussions has fundamentally changed the way I view the world, which has most certainly been the most impactful and just coolest part of this entire experience. The fact that Concussion Alliance also makes that information accessible to the general public is really fantastic.”

“At some point in your life, you or someone you know is going to have a concussion,” Kunzman added. “If you’re educated ahead of time, that will serve you very well, and it will serve others, because the more people who get involved in understanding concussions and spreading awareness about how to approach them, the better.”

To learn more about Concussion Alliance internships, visit the Concussion Alliance website. Those with an interest in science writing can also contact Conor Gormally to volunteer to contribute to Concussion Alliance’s bi-weekly newsletter synopsizing recent news and research on concussions. Concussion Alliance is also looking for volunteers this fall to help with social media and capacity-building.

Erica Helgerud ’20 is the news and social media manager for Carleton College.