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UPMC taking some big steps in treatment of concussions

As if dealing with concussion symptoms wasn't already devastating, Upper St. Clair senior Natalia Watzlaf remembers walking into an exam room with filing cabinets at UPMC Sports Medicine Center and being "skeptical of everything."

Watzlaf is one of 13,000 patients treated annually through the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program. At its inception, program director Michael "Micky" Collins vowed to "make Pittsburgh ground zero" for brain injury treatment. The program has grown so dramatically that it forced UPMC to raise the roof.

The concussion center now boasts 3,500 square feet of second-floor office space after an expansion of the formerly unused rooftop at the South Side facility opened in January.

The program could soon outgrow its space: Collins, the self-described "point guard of the program," projects it will treat 25,000 to 30,000 patients annually by 2014.

"It's that busy," said Collins, a clinical psychologist with extensive neuropsychological training. "This is a really powerful program. We help a lot of kids. A lot of kids need help. That's what this is really about: giving kids the right environment to recover. It sounds hokey, but it's so true. The more kids we see, the more we can treat. I'm so much more efficient now."

The increased space, equipped with nine exam rooms, allows Collins and his 24-person staff to treat as many as 30 patients a day. Not only can they take computerized ImPACT tests but also go through vestibular tests to assess space, motion and vision as well as physical exertion with exercise equipment under the watch of therapists in the gym portion on the ground floor.

"I've had kids as young as 8 all the way to (adults as old as) 45, but the majority is in the teenage range," said Cara Troutman-Enseki, a UPMC physical therapist and orthopedic certified specialist. "I've dealt with every sport imaginable."

Like Watzlaf, Quaker Valley senior Madison MacDonald suffered a concussion while playing soccer. Where Watzlaf immediately knew she was injured but was told by a doctor to sleep in the next day and take two Advil to alleviate her headaches, MacDonald continued playing into basketball season before she realized something was seriously wrong.

Both suffered a second concussion this past fall and are serving as student advocates for the concussion program.

"We would come in and sit in the big waiting room, then get called in and go room to room," MacDonald said. "Now you walk straight in and go to the concussion center. It's so much more organized, efficient and faster because we're condensed in one place. It's helped me escape the sadness and depression kids can go through with this kind of injury."

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