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Palmer three-sport athlete Hesselberg's death caused by head injury, not aneurysm

May 4, 2011 Updated: July 3, 2013 at 9:59 am
photo - Teammates mourned Sam Hesselberg's death in December. Photo by THE GAZETTE FILE
Teammates mourned Sam Hesselberg's death in December. Photo by THE GAZETTE FILE 

Springtime was already going to be difficult for Sam Hesselberg's parents.

Steven and Leanne Hesselberg were bracing for prom, graduation and an athletic banquet; each set to continue without Sam, a three-sport athlete at Palmer who died suddenly in December.

Then came even tougher news.

It wasn't an aneurysm that killed the 17-year-old senior, as was previously assumed, but a head injury likely suffered during a hockey game five days earlier.

This was the finding of a specialist in Texas, whom the El Paso County coroner's office sought for a second opinion after failing to pinpoint the cause of death.

"Do you ask, 'What if?' You sure do," said Steven Hesselberg, Sam's father. "In many ways this has been like dealing with everything all over again."

Sam suffered a hit to the head in a game against Ralston Valley on Dec. 13, explaining to his father later that night that he "got his bell rung." That was the end of the complaining. Sam reported no lingering symptoms, never indicated to his coach or the Palmer training staff that anything was wrong as he continued skating in practice that week.

"Sam was having an outstanding year for us," Palmer coach Bob Davidson said. "I remember commenting to one of our coaches (that week of practice), 'Look at Sam's skating. Why hasn't he done this four years in a row?'"

The Terrors ran their normal routine and drills; nothing Davidson recalled as being particularly violent. "People may have bumped into each other, but there's no banging into boards or anything like that."

On Dec. 17, Sam took finals at school and was home with a friend shortly after noon. At 2:30 p.m. he told the friend he had a headache and she ought to leave. At 3:10 p.m. Leanne Hesselberg arrived and found Sam unconscious. He was taken by ambulance to Memorial Hospital and died early the next morning.

Dr. Leon Kelly found no signs of an impact injury, as it appeared the bleeding had occurred on the inside of the brain. Wanting more information and to determine if it might be a hereditary issue, Kelly contacted the specialist in Texas who deals primarily with shaken baby cases. He found a small bruise on the outside of the brain that he estimated had occurred within the past three or four days and never stopped bleeding. The pooled blood eventually caused enough pressure to rupture an artery, Steven Hesselberg said of the process.

The family learned the final results two weeks ago.

Steven Hesselberg said he was told the bruise was so small that it wouldn't have been detected by a CAT Scan. But would the injury have healed had Sam been removed from practice that week?

That will be a lingering question.

"If there was a sign, I didn't notice it," said Davidson, who recently retired after 47 years of coaching hockey. "Nobody else seemed to notice it or say anything that Sam was incoherent or his speech was slurred or any other signs of a concussion. He was on time for practice and he didn't seem to be forgetting anything. He would lead the skating drills. He was just Sam.

"I wish there was something I would have noticed."

The only previous head injury the Hesselbergs recall Sam suffering came in a baseball game four or five years ago when he was struck by a foul ball. He was taken to the hospital and cleared, the doctors saying he likely suffered a minor concussion.

During the game against Ralston Valley, Palmer trainer Kevin Diehl patched a cut on Hesselberg's chin while he was in the penalty box. Diehl was unaware of any other injuries at the time.

Had Hesselberg been suspected of having a head injury, district and state policies would have required that he sit out at least seven days and return only after being cleared by a physician.

Some schools go beyond that and can test brain function to determine the extent of the injury and monitor progress during recovery. Palmer does not perform the baseline tests that are necessary to provide that initial point of reference.

"We don't have any resources to do baseline tests as far as cognitive tests are concerned," Diehl said. "I know the district was talking about getting it, but you know how it is with funding right now. It didn't go through."

In this case, it's irrelevant. Hesselberg didn't give coaches or trainers reason to suspect he should undergo testing.

"If you don't show signs or if a kid fakes it or tries to play through an injury, it's really hard for our coaches and trainers to know anything is wrong," Palmer athletic director Robert Framel said. "We need our players to be honest with us and we'll be honest with them in return in terms of evaluating them and getting them back as soon as it's safe to do so."

Framel said Hesselberg's death sent shock waves through the school and the recent news did as well. He expects District 11 to rethink some of its policies in the immediate future to prevent another incident.

"We want to work together to make things better, that's the bottom line," Framel said.

Also a member of Palmer's baseball and golf teams, Sam will be recognized by Palmer at the year-end athletic banquet.

Then comes graduation.

Steven, the principal at a District 11 elementary school that feeds into Palmer, will be on the stage for the ceremony, which will include the reading of Sam's name.

"I'm going to try to get through that," he said. "I don't know how it will go."

Steven and Leanne Hesselberg came forward with the new information after deciding that Sam's case might bring exposure to a problem that, despite being in the spotlight for several years, is still ignored by some athletes and coaches.

"We're not after anybody," Steven Hesselberg said. "There's nothing that could have prevented it. We just think people need to be aware of this."

With a sense of closure delayed even longer, the Hesselberg family continues to mourn a teen so universally admired that hundreds gathered on the family's lawn in a vigil in frigid temperatures the night he died.

Steven Hesselberg said the small token of comfort to come from this is the knowledge that Sam's life didn't end by a fluke occurrence.

"He loved sports," Steven Hesselberg said. "And he died doing what he loves."

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