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Cutting edge concussion research and prevention hit Tawatinaw

Former para-athlete Zach Savage's family take up torch of advocacy
The SHRed bus, which stands for Surveillance in High School and Community Sport to REDuce Concussions, is a cutting edge research tool that travels the country to bring the lab to communitites and events like the March 16 ZS Concussion Clinic.

ATHABASCA — Less than two years after the passing of Rochester-area son, nephew, and national para-athlete Zach Savage, two of his family members have become advocates for increased awareness around concussion treatment and prevention.  

Tanya Savage, Zach’s mother, in conjunction with Tanya Savage, Zach’s aunt, hosted their first ZS Concussion Awareness Clinic March 16 at Pine Valley Hall and Tawatinaw Ski Hill. The event featured presentations and speeches from University of Calgary researchers and staff, as well as one Albertan with a personal tale of head trauma and recovery.  

“This is just a way that we’re giving back, I suppose, with concussion awareness,” said the pair during an interview on March 21, Zach’s 24th birthday. “It can happen at any time.”  

“Finally, society is saying, ‘Hey, we need to talk about this. ' It’s not just, ‘Let’s shove this under the carpet. ' Our goal is to raise awareness and educate people,” said Zach’s aunt.  

Both Tanya’s said the free event saw more than 70 attendees, and by way of a lunchtime burger sale, the pair raised $675 — money they donated to Tawatinaw Valley’s Canadian Adaptive Snowsports (CADS) club, a program that helps differently-abled people enjoy the sport of skiing.  

“Zach learned to ski with this program,” said Zach’s aunt. “It’s amazing, everybody can ski with this program, but the equipment is very expensive.”  

Clinic content 

The first portion of the event was held at the Pine Valley Hall, and featured presentations from researchers and PhD students from the U of C Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre. In addition to providing insight into head injury research, the team also brought the SHRed Mobile: an R.V. converted to a mobile educational lab.  

Sponsored by the National Football League’s program focused on concussion research and prevention, the SHRed Mobile tours across the country to bring cutting-edge research to groups and events like the ZS Clinic. 

Data is collected through the research conducted for the Surveillance in High School and Community Sport to Reduce Concussions and Consequences of Concussions in Canadian Youth program, also known as SHRed Concussions.   

Attendees also heard Curtis Anderson’s story — Anderson was a bull rider by trade until an accident at the 2002 Ponoka Stampede changed his life forever. Two severe knocks to his head resulted in Curtis being put into a 3-week drug-induced coma, loss of movement in his left arm, and left him unable to walk and talk.  

“One day at a time was my was graduation theme, and I’ve kept that theme on my road to recovery,” said Anderson in a 2013 advocacy video on Youtube. Two years into his healing journey, Anderson founded the Courage Canada Trail Ride as a way of increasing awareness of concussions and brain injury.  

The Tanya’s said feedback from clinic participants has been positive and highlighted gaps in shared knowledge and best practices around concussions and treatment.  

“They were just surprised (at) how much they didn’t know about concussions,” said Zach’s mom.  

“It was amazing for our small little community to have this huge SHRed bus there, and these people who this is their dedication, to learning more about concussions,” said Zach’s aunt.  

Holding the clinic in March was an intentional move by the pair: both Tanya’s said scheduling the event to be close to Zach’s birthday was important to them, and added subsequent events in following years are a possibility.  

“We learned a lot of things hosting our first event,” said Zach’s mom. If they go ahead with a 2025 clinic, the pair said they would plan a few aspects differently.  

“All of this is very important, and I think next year when we host it again, we’ll invite some doctors, teachers. I’m a teacher and I coach, and concussions happen anywhere, and you have to know what you’re looking for, and you have to know what to ask kids,” added Zach’s aunt.  

Remembering Zach Savage 

Zach, a sledge hockey player from the age of five, passed away in July 2022 at 22 years old. The para-athlete played for the Alberta Sledge provincial team and was named to Canada’s National Sledge Team in 2015.  

Born a double-leg amputee, Zach didn’t let his differences stop him. While in Grade 4, his mom said he started hitting the slopes in Edmonton as well.  

“Tuesday nights we drove to the city for sledge hockey, and Wednesday nights we drove to the city for downhill skiing,” said Zach’s mom. “We would get home at like 10 or 11, and I’d have to pack him in the house. It was so tiring,” she remembered with a laugh.  

“Zach was very athletic, he could have been on the national team for (skiing) because he had no fear of speed,” said Zach’s aunt. “He was also a very determined individual.”  

At the age of 15, he decided to hone in on his hockey career, and after being named captain of Alberta Sledge and a trip to Italy to play for the national team, a shoulder injury slowed him down. But his mom and aunt said he also dealt with injuries of the invisible type in the last years of his atheletic career and life. 

“I know for sure that Zach had a lot of concussions,” said his mom. After a fall on ice in the winter of 2021, he went on to play in a tournament in Montreal, where he may have received another concussion. Weeks later, in April 2022, Zach played in Calgary, and in May, he was on the ice in Leduc. Another 10 days playing with the national team, and the symptoms had started to appear.  

“Once he came back from that camp, he had anxiety, he was nervous about a few things; he stopped eating, he stopped sleeping,” said his mom. “He was still functioning, but he was a little bit off.”  

Following his death later that summer, the pair have taken up the torch of advocacy.  

“I think it’s important to tell his story. I think it’s good for everybody. There's a little bit of healing while we tell it, and I think it’s good information for people so it doesn’t happen to somebody else,” said Zach’s mom.  

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