AFL concussions: John Barnes’ wife pleads for partners of battling ex-players to come forward
Michael Warner, Herald Sun
December 29, 2017 7:50pm
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THE wife of AFL concussion casualty John Barnes has pleaded for the partners of other players battling concussion-related brain injuries to come forward and seek help.
Rowena Barnes, 47, is forming a partners’ support group ahead of a looming Federal Court concussion damages action against the AFL and clubs.
“I just know that the man I married 24 years ago is not the same person today,” Mrs Barnes said.
“We believe John’s (epilepsy) seizures are caused by concussions suffered during his playing days and want other people to know that they’re not alone.
“The support group will encourage people to come forward and not suffer in silence like we’ve had to.”
The legal team behind the damages action on Friday revealed it had written to the league seeking access to footage from every game involving all players who had joined the proceedings.
Barnes, Brownlow medallist John Platten and former Demons high-flyer Shaun Smith are the first three plaintiffs in the case led by lawyer and Adelaide United chairman Greg Griffin and veteran agent Peter Jess.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” Mr Jess said.
“It is essential that we can clearly demonstrate from the footage what happened, how it happened and what the follow-up was if the player returned to the field after suffering a collision-based injury.”
Mr Griffin said papers would be lodged with the Federal Court in the first half of next year.
Emails reveal Mrs Barnes contacted the AFL Players’ Association in 2014 to raise concerns about her husband’s health.
Barnes, a member of Essendon’s 2000 premiership team, fears his battles with epilepsy, memory loss and anger are linked to head knocks suffered throughout his 202-game career.
AFL chief medical officer Dr Peter Harcourt wrote to Barnes in November 2015 after he reported his symptoms as part of a past player concussion survey.
Barnes was told “a consultation with one of our specialists will be arranged in due course to address either your concussion history or any ongoing symptoms”.
Two years later, Mrs Barnes says this has not happened. Mr Jess said the Barnes emails exposed the AFL’s concussion screening of 500 past players as “manifestly inadequate”.
“One has to wonder how many of these players symptoms were ignored or misdiagnosed like John Barnes,” Mr Jess said. “A full independent review should be conducted to protect the welfare of these past players.
“It is a systemic failure of the highest order that highlights the total lack of care in this very serious health issue.”
The AFLPA, in a statement, said: “While (Dr) Harcourt’s letter was issued by Brad Fisher of the AFLPA, the email was sent via system administrator for the purposes of confidentiality. Neither Mr Fisher nor AFLPA management were aware of the contents of this letter until recently.”
Mrs Barnes is adamant there is a link between head knocks and neurological impairments. “Definitely. John had three broken jaws in such a short period of time, numerous concussions, and they would send them straight back on to the ground in his day,” she said.
“I’m not a doctor or an expert, but you don’t need to be Einstein to work out that it was probably not the correct procedure. There’s a lot of scientific testing — we’ve spoken to a lot of neurologists and recently scientists — that indicate that there definitely is substantial proof to indicate that concussion can lead to John’s symptoms.
“And I strongly believe in that. There is no genetic connection, no other reason why he should be suffering seizures out of the blue at 43 years of age and not getting a reason as to why.”
St Vincent’s head of neurology, Professor Mark Cook, who assessed Barnes, said it was clear repeated head knocks could cause brain injury and that could cause seizures.
Mr Jess said videos promoting heavy collisions, such as Bumps, Biffs and Brawlers, released by Channel 7 in 2001, underscored the prevailing culture at the time.
“It almost encouraged the gladiatorial side of the game, completely ignoring the health and safety of the participants,” he said. “Now, we are dealing with the consequences that flowed from that.”
Mrs Barnes said her experience had convinced her to reach out to other wives and partners struggling to look after former players with neurological impairments.
“We are very positive people and lucky enough to have the support of family and friends,’’ she said.
“But even just thinking about seeing John going through a seizure makes me very emotional.
“Your whole life is turned upside down from losing your independence, which leads to depression, which leads to everything just not being how it was before.
“It’s something that you shouldn’t have to go through on your own, there needs to be some kind of support, so this is what we’re trying to establish at the moment.
“We want to send a very strong message to partners, family and friends of people going through this, that you’re not alone.”
Wives and partners suffering similar experiences can visit concussionmatters.com.au
Such a caring and thorough doctor is Peter Harcourt.