DENVER — At the height of his career, Jake Pates was literally on top of the world. The professional snowboarder from Boulder made it to the finals in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, but suffered a nearly career-ending concussion in 2020.
That hard reality set the 23-year-old Pates on a mission – a new passion away from the slopes.
“It’s a project that’s near and dear to my heart because of my experiences with head injuries,” he said.
In conjunction with WAVi, a company that performs all-in-one brain scans, Jake Pates’ nonprofit called Happy Healthy Brain Foundation has a lofty goal to start brain scans as part of high school physicals for every athlete in the nation participating in high-risk contact sports.
“They do your height, they do your weight, they do your blood pressure, but there’s no measurement for the brain,” said WAVi Co. Dr. David Oakley. “So, our test is quick, simple. You should measure your brain every year.”
The device is small, sleek and much less intimidating than many perceptions we have of brain scans.
“We invented something that people want to put on,” said Oakley. “You just put it on, close your eyes, and … simple.”
The idea is to get a baseline reading of an athlete’s brain before the season so if a head injury occurs in a game or practice, a doctor can do a subsequent scan and compare pre- and post-injury images, helping diagnose and treat concussions and other head injuries.
“Then you can use these tests to help to return to play safely to say, ‘OK, you’re back to your baseline. Now we know the concussion has dissolved. You can get back to competing,'” explained Dr. Travis Lauder at Health One’s Care Now Urgent Care.
His office is not affiliated with WAVi Co., but he believes there is a great deal of promise in products like this.
“It would be high school athletes that are in high-impact sports such as ice hockey, football, soccer, wrestling, gymnastics,” said Lauder. “I think it is valuable to get baseline testing in those patients.
That’s because he says every patient’s brain and every concussion is different.
“It’s really difficult to predict what symptoms you’ll have or how long they’ll last,” Lauder said.
The scan is also much less subjective than the common sideline SCAT5, or Sport Concussion Assessment Tool, used to gauge player injuries.
“Sometimes people are honest and sometimes they are not, and that’s really where objective measurements like the scans lies,” Lauder said.
He says it’s still somewhat common for players and even parents and coaches to downplay those pen-to-paper tests.
“There are absolutely still a subset of parents patients and coaches minimizing symptoms to get back to play sooner,” Lauder said.
Pates says he’s lied “so many times.”
“Lying to the physician at the event where I was – I was at a World Cup, told him I wanted to get back in early,” Pates said.
Severe concussions or returning too early can also lead to Second Impact Syndrome, which increases the possibility of long-term damage.
“We know there can be long-term consequences for kids if they go back to activity too soon,” said Lauder.
“It can increase the risk of psychiatric illness, specially depression,” said Pates.
Oakley said the new scans aim to increase education.
“The trick is to get parents on board with baselining, that’s the hard part,” he said. “They’ve got to do something – whether it’s this technology or something else.”
Pates says it’s a no-brainer – a career-extending and, in his opinion, perhaps even life-saving technology.
“The only thing we’re trying to do is help,” he said. “This is a piece of the puzzle … and it’s been a missing piece of the puzzle for a while.”