Cheerleading has always been such an important part of Jeri Wethli’s life. So, when a doctor told her last year she had to sit out for a week due to a concussion, she decided not to tell her coaches.
“At first I kind of tried to play it off and pretend like it didn’t happen,” said Wethli, 19, a sophomore. “I was at work, and I wasn’t feeling well – like I was dizzy. I had a really bad headache. I couldn’t see straight. So, I knew I had a concussion.”
Ever since third grade, when Wethli first put on a uniform and picked up a pair of red-and-white pompoms for the North Hill Redskins Pee Wee football team in New Castle, Pa., she knew she wouldn’t be putting the pompoms down anytime soon.
“When I was looking into colleges, I was looking for schools where I could possibly cheer at,” Wethli said. “I’ve done it for so long that it means a lot to me. It’s always something I’ve been a part of.”
Wethli’s mother, Sandy Wethli, knows just how important cheerleading is to her daughter.
“Cheerleading is not just a hobby, but a way of life for Jeri,” Sandy said. “She still has the enthusiasm and love for it that she had when she was 8 years old. I truly believe cheerleading will always be a part of Jeri’s life.”
A study, published in October by the Journal of Pediatrics, says the rate of catastrophic injuries in cheerleading is higher than any other sport – and 6 percent of those injuries are concussions.
Also, cheerleading ranks 10th among the top causes of female concussions, according to an analysis of nationwide emergency rooms visits from 1997-2012, the most recent year available. More than 32,000 cheerleaders ended up in ERs during the 16-year period, according to reports kept by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which is overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nearly one in every 20 cheerleaders had to be hospitalized, the figures show.
Michelle Markota, cheerleading coach for Youngstown State University, said that a lot of injuries are a result of inexperienced coaches.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the coaches out there aren’t certified to teach these stunts,” Markota said. “Especially, the younger cheerleaders in the sport have parents taking over programs who think they know what to do based on what they have seen on TV.”
Nearly a month after her first concussion, Wethli suffered a second blow to the head and went to the hospital to be treated for what she thought was a broken nose. After several X-rays and a CT scan, the nurse delivered the news that would force the cheerleading fanatic to hang up her uniform for the rest of the year.
The CT scan showed that the blow to her head resulted in another concussion and a lesion on her brain. After being seen by her primary care physician, Wethli was sent to a neurologist.
Wethli remembered the neurologist’s office had dull white walls accented by tan cabinets and plain black chairs. She also remembered what the doctor said in his thick, Italian accent that brought her to tears.
“He said I was out for six months,” she said. “I would be cleared to cheer on April 1.”
She said time “froze,” just like the outdated calendar that was stuck on September in the doctor’s examination. After getting an apologetic handshake from the doctor, she walked down a gloomy hallway, dodging what she felt were “rude” stares by office staff who noticed the trails of tears on her cheeks.
“I didn’t think or speak the entire ride back to Youngstown,” Wethli said. “Everything was blank. It was one of those drives when you get to your destination and don’t remember the entire drive there.”
Jeff Wills, a fifth-year assistant athletic trainer at YSU, is unfamiliar with Wethli’s case, but said a concussion so severe that it would leave a brain lesion is not common and would be hard to recover from.
“It’s not typical that you are going to get a brain lesion from a concussion,” Wills said.
He indicted the risk of serious injury increases “if you receive two concussions that close to one another.”
There is only one way to truly recover from a concussion, Wills said.
“Rest. You essentially treat a concussion like you would a muscle injury,” he said. “If you injure a hamstring, it needs time to rest and heal. The brain is the same way.”
Wills also explained that resting the brain might also mean limiting television viewing or time spent on a computer or cell phone. He also says people who suffer from a concussion should wear sunglasses indoors.
After her second concussion, Wethli knew she had to tell her coaches at YSU. Coach Jenna Stacey Schneider was among the first people she approached.
“She was like, ‘This is rough. You’re a key player on this team, but we’ll work through it,’ ” Wethli recalled. The coach told her to listen to the doctor. “Just come to the games and still be a part of the team and practice, but we’ll work through it,” Schneider told her.
Again, Wethli was overwhelmed by emotion. She realized she would have to cheer on the teams in a way that was foreign to her – from the bleachers.
“When you have a leader like Jeri on the team and she tells you she’s out, it’s a big hit with cheerleading. For example with stunting, there are two sides, a back, and flier,” Schneider said. “She was a very strong side, so to replace a big part of that group was very, very difficult. It took a lot of time, it took a lot of practice, and it’s a huge adjustment for the team.”
Seeing Wethli in the stands instead of on the sidelines was a different experience for others as well, said Gabriella Borawiec, a teammate and friend.
“Jeri is always that positive person,” Borawiec said. “So, if a stunt didn’t hit, she would be like, ‘It’s OK. Try it again.’ I think it’s really difficult for her to come to games and sit there not being able to cheer because she loves cheering and being with us.”
Wethli’s absence also impacted the chemistry of the various stunt groups.
Sarah Holloway, a flier on the cheerleading squad, relies on Wethli’s strength and experience to keep her safe as she soars through the air during various routines.
“In our squad, Jeri’s a base, which is an important part of a squad,” Holloway said. “She is always putting girls up in the air. I had to find a replacement to put underneath me, someone who I felt comfortable with and who could put me in the air.”
Finally, April 1 arrived, the day Wethli was cleared to cheer again. First, however, she had to tryout. She had just four days to prepare.
“I was nervous because I haven’t been able to do much over the six months of recovery,” Wethli said. “I didn’t have much time to practice at all.
On the big day, Wethli sat in her apartment near campus, pulling on the white tank top and black shorts that she would wear for tryouts. She reflected on the long road that brought her to that day. Throughout the entire experience, the part that she hated the most was the wait, watching others and not being able to participate.
“I had to wait even though I felt OK,” she said. “I knew I was OK, but I couldn’t do anything. That was the worst, not being able to cheer.”
As she walked into the Beeghly Center gymnasium, Wethli decided to give all she had and leave with no regrets. She felt confident at the conclusion of her routine.
“I did well,” Wethli said. “I landed all of my tumbling and I’m at the level that I was when I was hurt.”
Wethli watched as her friends tried out and then found out their fate. Her coaches waited until the end to talk to her. She sat on a wooden, folding chair opposite them – hoping for the best, but bracing for the worst.
The news was good. She was back.
“Thanks for the chance,” she told the coaches.
Wethli and the others who made the team exchanged hugs and tears. The journey had ended. A new journey was about to begin.
Once again, there would be a familiar face on the sideline.