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The National Post
January 13, 2017 | Last Updated: Jan 15 1:06 PM ET
CALGARY — Dr. Charles Tator issued a warning this week to people with post-concussion syndrome after the sudden death of Canadian bull riding champion Ty Pozzobon.
At age 25, the affable Pozzobon suffered multiple concussions in the ring and, according to his mom, battled depression.
Leanne Pozzobon found her son’s body on Monday morning in his Merritt, B.C., home under circumstances investigators are calling not suspicious.
“Depression is a very common symptom in post-concussion syndrome,” Tator, a neurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital, told Postmedia. “It probably occurs in 40 per cent of people, and it can be treated. Psychologists and psychiatrists can help enormously. We have much improved treatment for depression than we did even 10 or 15 years ago.
“It’s important for people to realize that if after a concussion they get depressed, it’s not because of sadness. It’s because of a brain injury, and that message hasn’t sunk in with the general public.”
Like most cowboys, Pozzobon suffered a laundry list of injuries over the years including a broken wrist, broken femur, collapsed lung and numerous blows to the head.
“Although the family knew he was suffering depression and anxiety, he was still moving forward day-to-day, making plans, making coffee dates, signing contracts,” family friend Gail Joe told Postmedia’s Meghan Potkins. “He was very much moving forward but being drawn down by mental illness.”
According to the family, Pozzobon sought treatment from a family physician.
“It’s important that people know about the implications of head injuries as a result of concussions,” Leanne Pozzobon said in a statement Tuesday.
Pozzobon was visiting Merritt at the time of his death and planned to return to Texas where his wife lives.
The family donated samples of Pozzobon’s brain tissue in hopes of saving other lives. Researchers will determine whether the cowboy suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a late complication of multiple concussions.
“Right now, we’re stuck with making the diagnosis at autopsy,” Tator said. “And that’s why I’m particularly glad that this fellow’s family has decided to allow this examination of their loved one’s brain. That’s currently the only way we learn something.”
Dr. Tandy Freeman acts as the on-site doctor for the Professional Bull Riders. He said concussions account for about 15 per cent of injuries suffered in a sport that pits a fragile human against a beast that weighs more than 900 kg.
“We’re pretty limited in our ability to prevent concussions,” Freeman said. “It’s unlike football or hockey where you can make a rule that you don’t hit with the head. Unfortunately, bulls don’t play by the rules. You can’t throw a flag and say, ‘That’s a bad deal.’”
Many concussions in bull riding occur when the rider is thrown off and comes to a sudden stop that jars the brain. Under a grandfather provision, helmets are mandatory for PBR athletes born on or after Oct. 15, 1994 — Pozzobon wore one — but Freeman said there’s no statistical proof they prevent concussions.
Prior to competing in the PBR Built Ford Tough Series, all riders most undergo neurological testing. Those baseline scores measure cognitive function, balance and ocular motor functioning and are kept for comparison should an athlete suffer a head injury.
Any bull rider who experiences a suspected concussion is not allowed to compete again that day. To receive medical clearance to subsequently return to action, the athlete must be asymptomatic and pass neurological tests after exercising to elevate the heart rate.
“In terms of concussions, we’re on the side of safety if we’re uncertain,” Freeman said. “We have a very low threshold.”
From a cultural standpoint, rodeo cowboys historically pride themselves in dusting themselves off and getting back in the bucking chute.
“That makes self-reporting a problem,” Freeman said. “We spend a lot of time educating.”
Three time-Canadian champion Scott Schiffner said education will only go so far in convincing a young bull rider to forsake competition even if he is experiencing headaches and dizziness.
“We’re one of the few professional sports in the world that is 100 per cent paid on performance,” the married father of three girls told Postmedia Friday while feeding cows in Strathmore, Alta. “If we’re not getting on the bull, riding and winning, we’re not getting paid. We’re not paying the bills. It’s not like NHL players who sign contracts and understand if they do get hurt, a team is there to support them and get them back to health again before they play.”
Depression is a symptom of post-concussion syndrome but Schiffner, 36, said despondency is also common for rodeo cowboys forced to sit out for extended periods.
“The long-term effects definitely enter into the back of your mind,” he said of the dangers of repetitive head trauma in the ring. “But you’ve got to live your life to the fullest in the time you have.
“You can’t always be looking at the future, because before you know it, the future is in the past and there’s no more.”